The God of the Bible is the God of Justice

I am continuing in my series of blogs about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in honor of the anniversary of his death, April 4th. I am exploring what his life can teach us about the experience of the Divine Mystery.

mlkmemphisspeech1968On April 3rd, 1968, the night before he was killed, Dr. King delivered a speech in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had come to support the sanitation workers’ strike. There had been threats against King related to this trip to Memphis; he mentioned the threats in his speech. He mentioned earlier dangers, too, including the time he was stabbed by a deranged woman in New York City. But he talks more about his gladness. He speaks about his gratitude for being alive to witness the sit-ins, and the bus boycott, and all the other ways that black people had aroused the conscience of the nation and stood up for freedom. He encourages the striking workers not to be afraid, and talks about all the practical necessities of their current struggle.

He ended his speech in words that his listeners would have known were an echo of the story of Moses. As the Hebrew people were close to entering the promised land, God brought Moses up on a mountain, where he could see the promised land, even though he would not be allowed to enter it with them. It was on that mountain that Moses died.

Here is what Dr. King said:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

There is power in a story. For Dr. King, the story of Moses was a doorway into the power of God to lift up the lowly. King said that preachers should draw on the prophet Amos to say, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He said that preachers should say with Jesus, who himself was quoting the prophet Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.” Dr. King took the stories of the prophets and wove them into new words of hope and liberation, words that gave people the power to make a change.

There are still many people who try to argue against this justice-loving God of the Bible. Four years ago, just a few weeks before the anniversary of Dr. King’s death, Fox News commentator and radio personality Glenn Beck attacked churches that preach a gospel of social and economic justice. Glenn Beck said if your church preaches that, you should “run as fast as you can.” According to Beck, social and economic justice are code words for communism and Nazism.

Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the progressive Christian group Sojourners, responded to Beck on his own videoblog. He said,

When I was in seminary, we did a study of the Bible and we found 2000 verses in the Bible about the poor, about God’s concerns for the left out, the left behind, the vulnerable and God’s call for justice. One of my classmates took an old Bible, and cut out every single reference to the poor, to social justice, to economic justice, and when we were done, the Bible was just in shreds. If I were ever to talk to Glenn Beck, I would like to hand him that old Bible from seminary and say, Glenn, this would have to be your Bible. …The God of the Bible is the God of justice.

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When you are standing up for righteousness, God will be at your side

Today I am continuing in my series of blogs about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in honor of  the anniversary of his death, April 4th. I am exploring what his life can teach us about the experience of the Divine Mystery.

There was a time shortly after the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott, when Dr. King was seriously doubting whether to continue his involvement in the movement. He had been receiving threatening phone calls and letters at his home, and while at first he took them in stride, after a while, he began to grow afraid. After a particularly strenuous day, late at night, already in bed, he got a phone call with yet another angry threat. He got up and began to pace the floor and then went into the kitchen.

He wrote about this moment:

I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problems to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

He goes on to say,

At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once, my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.

Three nights later, his home was bombed, but he was able to deal with it calmly. His experience of the presence of God had given him a whole new strength.

As in the story of the Israelites leaving the slavery of Egypt, Dr. King experienced a divine Mystery that is involved in the struggles of human beings to achieve dignity, equality, and justice. As I said before, there is no way to prove that such a God exists. At least, there is no proof outside of the experience of it. But there is a power in the experience that enabled Dr. King to go on to lead his people with courage and truth. And there is a power in the story, just the experience of hearing that story about Dr. King, that inspires me in my own search for strength in the work for transformation.

220px-Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTSTo look closely at the story of Dr. King is to see its deep resonance with the story of Moses. God didn’t speak to Moses to give Moses a comfortable life. When Moses heard the voice of God, in the story of the burning bush, it was a voice calling him to free his people. And just so, Dr. King wasn’t praying about material wealth or success in his career, or even protection for his family. He was praying about standing up for what he believed was right—the struggle of black people to be treated with dignity and equality. He was praying for the courage to bear witness to justice. And the answer he received was linked to that justice work—that inner voice said, “when you are standing up for righteousness, God will be at your side.”

Dr. King went on to lead the movement with courage and strength. There were other threats and many troubles that came his way. His God didn’t protect him from all those troubles, but King felt God at his side. And the story of Moses continued to be a constant source of his inspiration.

Quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. is from The Strength to Love, Chapter 13, reprinted in A Testament of Hope, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.