Martin Luther King - St Bride's: Reflection

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Martin Luther King

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Eighty-eight years ago today a remarkable man was born.  His life - and, equally significantly, his death - not only had a profound impact upon the history of his own nation, but set ripples in motion that spread throughout the world.  Indeed, he has been named as one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century.

And his writings, and his example, also had a profound effect upon me - despite the fact that my life and my circumstances could not have been more different from his.  He was black - I am white; he was American - I am British; he was a Baptist minister - I am an Anglican priest; he endured profound suffering, threat, persecution, intimidation and danger because of his outspoken role in the American Civil Rights movement - I have been spared all of that, and mercifully have never had to experience anything quite as costly within my own life of faith.  Against his towering example, I feel like a complete amateur.

But very early on during my own Christian journey, I encountered his writings and his thought, and it fundamentally shaped my understanding of the Christian faith, of Christian ministry, and of what it is that lies at the very core of the Gospel.  And it did so in a very lasting way.  I still find myself reaching for his words to express truths that I strive to articulate, because he does it so much better than I could ever do.

His name was Martin Luther King Jr, and although I was only nine years old when he was assassinated on 4th April 1968, his wisdom; his intelligence; his philosophy of non-violence; and his commitment to the Gospel have remained a living source of inspiration for me.

King was an extraordinarily prophetic man, who lived out his faith with profound commitment - but he was also no plaster saint.  He was a complex human being who had his flaws, and his own demons, as we all do.  But for me, if anything, that increases his significance - because he was frail and broken as we all are.  Which makes his courage and his commitment the more remarkable.

So, what was it in his life and in his writings that had such a profound effect upon me?  The answer is, a range of things, at quite different levels.  To begin with there are those remarkably insightful and memorable but incredibly simple sayings, such as this one:

Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.

I can also remember quite early on in my own ministry, reading one of his addresses in which he talked about the necessity in Christian life of combining both a tough mind and a tender heart.  He regarded a tough mind as essential, because Christian living - particularly in the kind of challenging context in which he was having to function - requires the strength, and the insight, and the courage to engage with reality in a way that can bring about lasting change.  And this requires incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment.  But having a tough mind is of no use at all unless accompanied by a tender heart - because a hardhearted person can never truly love.  To put it in Martin Luther King's own words:

Toughmindedness without tender-heartedness is cold and detached, leaving one's life in a perpetual winter devoid of the warmth of spring and the gentle heat of summer.  What is more tragic than to see a person who has risen to the disciplined heights of toughmindedness but has at the same time sunk to the passionless depths of hardheartedness.

And although I fail constantly to get the balance right, that particular aspiration is one that has informed the whole of my ministry. 

But there is one other passage by King that had an even more profound effect upon me which some of you may have heard me quote before in a different context, because it remains very close to my heart.  Interestingly enough I can remember exactly where I was when I heard it for the first time.  I was a student in Cambridge, and it was a warm summer's evening, and one of the associate priests at Great St Mary's, the University Church, was preaching at Evensong.  And as part of his sermon he read a passage by Martin Luther King which so blew me away, that the following day I went straight out to buy the book he had taken it from.  And I still have it. 

I shall read you that particular passage in a moment.  But just to set it in context: one of the most significant themes in Martin Luther King's understanding of the Christian faith was his belief that: 

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

And it is that particular insight that he fleshes out in the quotation that so blew me away during that Choral Evensong in Cambridge sometime in the middle of 1984.  Which was this:

To our most bitter opponents we say: 'We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering.  We shall meet your physical force with soul force.  Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you.  We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because non co-operation with evil is as much a moral obligation is co-operation with good.  Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you.  send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you.  But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.  One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves.  We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

It was that last part that so blew me away.  Because this was far more than simply a charter for passive non-aggression.  This was an approach to life that I had simply never encountered before and which suddenly, for the first time ever, made real sense to me of the commandment of Jesus for us to love our enemies:

One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves.  We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

For those of us who are his hearers, there can be few more challenges more daunting than the one that he sets out in that passage.  But then, who ever suggested that transforming our world, transforming our lives, and bringing peace where there is hatred and conflict, was easy.

So on this the anniversary of his birth, let us give thanks for the life and work and witness of Martin Luther King - and for all who, like me, have been inspired by his example.   Amen

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