When we think about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we think about a litany of accomplishments and lessons. Bono sings about King’s sacrificial love: “Early morning, April 4. Shots ring out in the Memphis sky / Free at last, they took your life. They could not take your pride / In the name of love.” Historians write about King’s effective peaceful protests and the civil rights for which he fought. He accomplished much for America as a whole, and he gives the American church an example of prophetic witness in a time when we desperately need it.
Though so many laws have changed for the better since King died, the effects of racism are not dead. The Washington Post recently published an article demonstrating that, in the areas of home ownership, unemployment, and incarceration, “there has been no progress [in 50 years] in how African Americans fare in comparison to whites.” If racialization goes unchecked and unchallenged, I believe societal ills such as unequal access to housing and education, police brutality, and mass incarceration will continue to rear their head.
If the church of Jesus Christ wants to be part of the solution, we must first acknowledge where we have contributed to such racialization—and humbly repent. We must also learn from King’s example of prophetic witness. The man we sometimes reduce to a comforting purveyor of multiculturalism addressed racism and poverty head-on at the risk of his life.
Here are three lessons we can learn from “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” a sermon King preached at the National Cathedral a month before his assassination.
1. Feel Others’ Pain
King believed we need to feel the pain of the suffering and to respond like God does. In describing the poverty he saw in different parts of our country, King said he experienced depression that led to tears. He felt the pain that people face, and knew that God weeps with them, too. He asked the congregation a rhetorical question: “How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes God’s children sleeping on the sidewalks at night?”
All of our hearts, in some way or another, have been desensitized to other people’s pain. Regardless of our opinion on the details of the events, many of us don’t feel the tears of Trayvon’s mother or Eric Garner’s daughter. We respond with cold words because our hearts are distant. Prophetic witness invites us to feel again. As one person observes, “Prophetic speech originates in the prophet’s profound awareness of and sensitivity to suffering caused by injustice” (234). Only when we feel others’ pain will we cry out.
2. Make Their Suffering Known
Another major part of prophetic witness is making known the suffering caused by oppression. In this sermon, King spoke of the poverty faced by 40 million Americans in the “ghettos of the North, rural areas of the South . . . and in Appalachia.” He described what he witnessed in Newark and Harlem:
I walked into the homes of welfare mothers. I saw them in conditions—no, not with wall-to-wall carpet, but wall-to-wall rats and roaches. I stood in an apartment and this welfare mother said to me, “The landlord will not repair this place. I’ve been here two years and he hasn’t made a single repair.”
What was King talking about? Prophetic witness gives a voice to those suffering in silence and obscurity. That mom couldn’t make known her plight on her own. To be prophetic, then, we must get close to the pain so we can expose it to the healing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
3. Embrace the Call
Finally, King shows us that prophetic witness must lead to concrete action. The gospel of Jesus comforts those who suffer oppression. As the good news of salvation, the gospel should also be transforming the church into a body that longs to get involved and help its suffering neighbors.
In this sermon, King announced his action by talking about the Poor People’s Campaign. Tragically, we never got to see the full fruit of his leadership in that campaign, because King was assassinated. Yet we know that whenever King exposed others’ suffering, he led the way toward practical solutions. He believed the good news was transformative in concrete ways.
Through his prophetic witness, King challenges us to move beyond the sanctuaries of silence and comfortable complacency to stand with those who suffer injustice. It won’t be easy: King was killed 50 years ago in Memphis for doing that very thing. But honoring his example of sacrificial love will help us embrace our own call to prophetic witness—even when it’s difficult and dangerous.