Reflecting on a Heroic Prophet: The Unfinished Work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Jan 12th, 2012
“Bishop, name one of your heroes,” requested a teenager during a question and answer session at a conference youth event.
After reflecting for a moment, I responded, “Martin Luther King, Jr.” I added that true heroes make us better by challenging our misplaced priorities, expanding our vision of a better world, and inspiring us to pursue the vision. Martin Luther King did that for me and countless others, and he continues to be one of my heroes.
It was Martin Luther King who pushed me beyond the provincial, homogeneous world of my native eastern Tennessee. I never personally knew an African American until I attended seminary in the early 1960s where I formed my first friendships across racial boundaries. Those friendships and Dr. King’s call for the removal of racial barriers challenged my prejudices and priorities.
New concepts entered my vocabulary and shaped my vision of and priorities for ministry—justice, equality, human dignity, and non-violence. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech sounded a lot like God’s dream of a new creation. Dr. King helped me to see that God’s dream includes a world in which all persons have worth and dignity as beloved children of God; a world in which all barriers are removed and the human family lives as one; a world in which all creation is healed; and a world in which justice begins with the least and most vulnerable.
Indeed, heroes are important! Yet, hero worship is inadequate and has within it a dangerous temptation. We are tempted to admire our heroes and ignore their challenges, to substitute applause for decisive action. Dr. King is widely venerated in American society today. A holiday is set aside in his honor. A monument on the mall in Washington pays tribute to his greatness. Schools, streets, and parks bear his name. Museums portray his life. Scholars write and teach about his life and legacy. Parades are held in his memory. He is worthy of such tributes!
But much of King’s vision remains unrealized. Racism persists in poisoning so much of American society. Segregation continues to characterize most of our neighborhoods and churches. Bigotry raises its ugly head in political discourse, especially around issues of immigration, crime, and joblessness. And prisons represent a modern day form of “Jim Crow” as Michelle Alexander has reminded us in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
It is Dr. King’s call for the end of poverty that has been tragically ignored. In the last book written shortly before his assassination, Dr. King issued maybe his most radical challenge. In Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? he called for an end to poverty in the United States. Yet, forty-six million people now live in poverty in the U. S., the largest on record dating back to when the census began tracking poverty in 1959. Tragically, many politicians and preachers who admire Dr. King as a hero are silent on the issue to which he devoted his energy in the closing days of his life.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is more than a hero to be admired. He was and is one of God’s prophetic voices to be heeded! Speaking out on economic inequality and working to end poverty are appropriate means of paying tribute to this remarkable hero and prophet!
About This Blog
Read and comment on a range of personal reflections and perspectives about poverty and Ministry with the Poor. Our goal is to attract diverse voices and points of view from United Methodists and friends, including people and communities living in conditions of poverty, other experts, religious leaders, community organizers, advocates, policy makers, volunteers, and all engaged in Ministry with the Poor.
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