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What Made MLK Great?

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Yesterday was a holiday celebrating a great American and an historic figure – Martin Luther King, Jr.  Someone I am old enough to remember.  This picture was taken, Grenada, MS – 1966, at the corner on which sat my great-aunt’s home – a house that had been in the family for several generations, and across the street from my grandparents.  I was nine, and it was truly an amazing time to be alive.

 

Dr. King was a force for justice unlike few others ever in history.  It is a mantle to which many have tried to lay claim but none have ever really succeeded.  Why was Dr. King able to succeed when so many have failed?  Why do his arguments, so powerful in their historical context, ring so hollow when applied to other seeming injustices?  Was it just the right time in history?  Was there something about Dr. King?  It should be clear by now, some 50 years later, that this particular lightening can never be bottled again – and yet many keep trying.

I would argue there are three factors that made Dr. King what he was.

Genuine Injustice.  If we are honest, the chattel slavery that marked the building of the American South was a unique evil.  Within its framework there were kindnesses and goodness, those who tried to honor the humanity of its victims, but as an institution the reduction of humanity to trade goods is abhorrent.  It is a similar impulse to the one that drove the Holocaust, one that treats another person as less than person.  Fortunately, such evil is rare.

To participate in that evil people must go to great lengths of rationalization and the psychological process of shedding that takes generations.  The guilt associated with acknowledging participation in evil that foul can crush a person.  People will go to great lengths to avoid having to face that pain.  Thus the battles that Dr. King fought.

Too often we try to name something an injustice when it is really just a minor foul.

The Right Time In History.  Timing matters.  When people are not prepared to face their genuine guilt, they simply will not.  They will continue to erect barricades between themselves and their guilt to avoid the confrontation.  You can paint them pictures, you can yell at them, but no matter what you do they will not face that guilt.  But at some point they will be ready.  Knowing that time and being positioned to act on it is rare.

Trying to force someone to look at their guilt when the time is not right results only in conflict.  Forcing guilt on them out of proportion to the violation can backfire.

God.  Dr. King was a preacher first, an activist second.  First and foremost he was a man of God.  There have been many books written about the influence Gandhi had on his work, and Gandhi did influence King deeply.  But King was no Hindu – He was a Christian.  And he brought to America’s collective guilt the grace of Jesus Christ.  As genuine the injustice and as right the time, neither was enough for the message to get through without the grace of Christ that says, ‘Oh yeah, you are guilty, but I still love you.”

Retribution deepens confrontation, grace heals it.

The right man in the right place under the right circumstances can do amazing things.  But the truly great things, the sorts of things that change the hearts of a nation takes more than the right man, the right place and the right circumstances – it takes God revealed in Jesus Christ full of grace and mercy.

Can I get an “Amen?”

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