I recall Martin Luther King as a scary figure.
Unrest and violence seemed to surround him. As a kid I really didn’t appreciate the significance of the issues, didn’t recognize the injustice. I grew up in the mostly white Midwest, and all I saw was disruption to what seemed a pretty safe, peaceful world.
Now I realize that the violence stemmed from resistance to change. I’ve learned to appreciate the tremendous force of Dr. King’s will, his commitment to peace and justice, and the lasting influence of his refusal to accept poverty and bigotry as status quo. But that influence magnifies because of one simple fact of his life: he followed Jesus.
Martin Luther King wasn’t the first, or the last, to take up the cause of those who chafe under the chains of repression. His legacy assumes nearly mythical status not because of cause, commitment or conquest. He is a hero not because he triumphed over tyranny. That’s not such a rare occurrence.
King’s legacy flows from the model he followed in pursuing his goals. He steadfastly refused to condone violence. He preached resistance and disobedience in the face of wrong, but firmly grasped the importance of never resorting to violence, no matter the circumstance. He understood that “an eye for an eye simply leaves the entire world blind.” He turned the other cheek when he was reviled, arrested and assaulted. He recognized the eternal truth that no important issue has ever been resolved with violence.
Dr. King could have had a comfortable, privileged life. He could have stood in a comfortable pulpit and lamented the unfortunate state of society. He could have built an enormous personal ministry and fortune using his skills as a leader and speaker. He could have aspired to political office and power. But he rejected the common paths to influence.
Instead, he adopted the self-sacrificial leadership model of Jesus. He took a principled stand, believing that right would triumph over might. He refused to trade long-term truth for short-term success.
He placed himself directly in the line of fire and refused to consider personal safety a thing to be grasped if it meant letting go of his eternal dream. He stepped into the fray. He walked the difficult and dangerous path he asked others to walk. He did all of this with determination, passion, and refusal to compromise. And ultimately he gave his life in pursuit of a vision.
Martin Luther King wasn’t a savior or a god; he was an ordinary man who took Jesus seriously. We don’t remember him so much because of his skills or his vision or his accomplishments. Martin Luther King did his best to follow the path of service and sacrifice marked for him by his Lord, and he refused to compromise Jesus’ principles to gain worldly success or recognition.
I doubt if Dr. King would care much about the honor of a national holiday to mark his birthday. I suspect that he would be more pleased if those who remember him would honor the Lord who guided his steps.