MLK and the Mountaintop

Yesterday was the 40th Anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King and I spent a good part of the afternoon listening to the media coverage. To commemorate the event, I read his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech delivered April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple in Memphis, the night before his assassination. It’s a speech that in hindsight is not only prescient about MLK’s fate, but also prophetic–

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 so 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!!

I listened to media coverage yesterday afternoon and I wonder whether we have in some sense neutered Brother Martin by canonizing him into the hallowed halls of the American metanarrative. He was radical. He was divisive. He was outspoken. In light of the Jeremiah Wright flap, I had to laugh when NPR mentioned that Martin was working on a sermon titled “Why America May Go to Hell” at the time of his assassination. Yet, when I often hear Martin’s name invoked, he sounds so inoffensive. As if the issues he dealt with are safely in the past.

For me, the Civil Rights Movement embodies the paradox of the Church’s response to social justice. On the one hand, the Movement embodies the potential of the Church to struggle to bring forth the Kingdom of God and Sermon on the Mount. Yet those on the other side who supported Jim Crow and oppression were considered “good Christians.”

I care deeply about the Church and it pains me when we fall short of the Kingdom. I’ve not been to the mountaintop, but I dream of it.