Martin Luther King Day came and went with parades, speeches and all the political trimmings. There was much said about the man's mesmerizing and memorable oratory, his calming demeanor and his righteous call for justice, especially in areas of race.
Yet seldom, if ever, did you hear of the religious faith that was at the heart Dr. King's efforts as the most prominent leader of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. This despite the fact that his drive for equality of the races and concern for the poor grew directly out of a determination to live out a Biblical faith as expressed in two of his sermons entitled "What Is Man?"and "The Dimensions of a Complete Life."
I can't say that I knew Dr. King well but as the religion editor of the Miami Herald having interviewed him half a dozen times, been present during nonviolent protest marches he led in Selma, AL, and St. Augustine, FL, and seen him in action at a Miami meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he headed, I believe I have a pretty good sense of the spirit of the man who is one of the few persons of color recognized by virtually all Americans, not as the preacher he was, but as a great national leader.
By 1964, the whole world saw the Baptist man of the cloth in that light as evidenced when, at age 35, Dr. King became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace. But the son and grandson of Baptist preachers, never forgot his role as a minister of the Gospel, a follower of the one Christians always have recognized as the Prince of Peace - Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
In an interview four years before he was martyred by an assassin's bullet in Memphis, Tenn., a tired Dr. King shared a feeling he was being used by friend and foe alike. Many groups who joined in support of the civil rights protests the preacher led, had other goals he did not share but benefitted by association with his name. Some who opposed his objectives of equal justice and racial harmony then, because of those associations, accused Dr. King of holding views that were not his.
The disappointment he felt did not deter Dr. King from the mission he considered to be simply the application to everyday life of the Gospel message he preached as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. That's where he came to the attention of the nation as the leader of those joining Rosa Parks in her protest of Jim Crow laws consigning African Americans to seats in the back of the bus.
A look at the cited sermons, each in its own way teaching what Jesus taught - love yourself properly, love your neighbor as yourself and God with all your heart, shows the spirit and the thinking of the clergyman trained at the famous all-male Morehouse College (founded in a church by Baptist preachers), Crozer Theological Seminary (a predominantly white Baptist school whose senior class elected him president and he was valedictorian) and the Methodist-connected Boston University where he earned his PhD in systematic theology.
"The whole political, social and economic structure of a society is largely determined by its answer to this pressing question" of "What Is Man?" Dr. King insisted. He went on to say that "there are those who look upon man as little more than an animal. They would say that man is a cosmic accident, that his whole life can be explained by matter in motion."
On the other hand, "there are those who would lift man almost to the position of a god," he noted. Neither view is accurate but each holds some truth. Dr. King noted first that "man is a biological being with a physical body" and that in Christianity "the body is sacred and significant. That means in any doctrine of man that we must be concerned with man's physical well-being.
"It may be true that man cannot live by bread alone but the mere fact that Jesus added the 'alone' means that man cannot live without bread . Religion must never overlook this and any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the economic conditions that damn the soul, the social conditions that corrupt men . is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion in need of new blood."
Beyond that, Dr. King said, a realistic doctrine of man recognizes that he "is a being of spirit . (with the) unique ability to have fellowship with God." But since "man is a free being made in the image of God ... we must admit that he has misused his freedom ... We're sinners in need of God's divine grace.
"In our collective lives, our sin rises to even greater heights ... Races trample over races; nations trample over nations; we go to war and destroy the values and the lives that God has given us . we end up with wars that burden us with national debts . filling our nations with orphans and widows, sending thousands of men home psychologically deranged and physically handicapped."
Noting that the apostle John in the book of Revelation described heaven as the new Jerusalem where "the length and the breadth and the height of it are equal," Dr. King said one of the lessons in the passage is that "life as it should be and life at its best is the life that is complete on all sides . (The length of life) is the inward concern for one's own welfare. The breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others. The Height of life is the upward reach for God ."
Dr. King cautioned against getting caught up in all the discoveries and advances in science and technology or being unconsciously carried away in the "tide of materialism" into the "confused waters of secularism" when "God is still here."
"So I say to you, seek God and discover Him and make Him a power in your life. Without Him all of our efforts turn to ashes and our sunrises into darkest nights. Without Him, life is a meaningless drama with the decisive scenes missing.
"But with Him we are able to rise from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope. With Him we are able rise from the midnight of desperation to the daybreak of joy."
Adon Taft was for 37 years the religion editor of The Miami Herald. Now retired in Brooksville, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.