As the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday approaches, I submit that the way we view Dr. King has some interesting similarities with how we regard Jesus Christ.
The most important one is that many of us profess to be followers and admirers of both historical giants, yet too often we disrespect what they tried to teach us.
Whenever people ask me who I regard as the greatest men who ever walked on this planet, I often respond with Jesus, Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi, Socrates and Jan Hus. Interestingly, all five died as the result of murder. We have been told Christ was crucified, King was felled by an assassin’s bullet, Gandhi went the same way, Socrates was forced to ingest poison and Hus was burned at the stake.
But I’ve always found King and Jesus to have the most profound effect on me.
I still have a lot of difficulty understanding “Christians” who ignore advice from Jesus published in the New Testament of the Bible. A few good examples are:
• “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers (and sisters), you also do to me.” Yet many so-called Christians treat the poor with nothing but contempt.
• Christ instructed people not to pray in public places like the Pharisees and hypocrites who wanted to be seen and demonstrate their piety to all. Yet many still call for collective prayer in school and other public settings.
• Jesus commanded the Pharisees who wanted a female adulterer stoned to death, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Yet many religious-driven morality laws lately have adversely targeted women on moral grounds.
• I don’t ever recall Jesus saying that war and killing are justified. Yet we find reasons to fight wars rather than try to negotiate peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the earth.”
• Jesus said, “It will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Yet we relentlessly seek more money and hold up the rich and powerful as virtuous and successful.
The similarities with Dr. King are that many say they admire the now-famous vision of a world in which people will be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Yet we still have a long way to go on that one.
Dr. King preached non-violence and led many successful efforts without having to take up the sword. He and Christ had a lot in common here. The only time I read about Jesus using violence was overturning the tables in the temple at Jerusalem because of the presence of peddlers hawking their wares.
My favorite quote from MLK was, “In the end, we will not remember the harsh words of our enemies as much as the silence of our friends,” virtually recalling the apostles’ treatment of Christ just before he was tried, convicted and executed.
King, like Jesus, made a lot of powerful enemies and it cost both their lives.
I have grown weary over the years of essays that say the same things about Dr. King and his legacy, overlooking his unpopular stands against the Vietnam War, his unflagging support of unions and his devotion to helping the poor. I’m even more tired of watching and hearing people praise him uncomfortably and awkwardly now only because he’s dead. While King was alive, he was widely reviled and no less a figure than FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover tried to bring him down.
Don’t get me wrong. In this comparison, I am viewing King and Christ as historical figures, not suggesting the divinity of either. The teachings attributed to them have had the greatest impact on my life. I take what they said very seriously and try my best to live my life accordingly. Obviously, I have failed sometimes, but I try to keep on trying.
Though it’s actually four days late, Happy Birthday, Dr. King.
Maybe the similarity of message may have to do with Rev. Dr. King’s being a Baptist pastor?