It’s been FIFTY YEARS since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on that now infamous balcony in Memphis, TN. Speculation as to why he was murdered runs along a wide spectrum of theories. James Earl Ray has been deemed responsible for Dr. King’s murder, but it’s no easier to hold one man responsible for his death as it is to hold one man responsible for the execution of Jesus of Nazareth. Many people were likely involved in what happened on April 4th, 1968. In the months preceding his death, Dr. King was wire tapped by the FBI, received death threats, and was radicalized by the media (who had once been his allies). It is nearly impossible to identify one person or institution responsible for what happened, but it’s not hard to find a similar story of another revolutionary who’s story parallels Dr King’s. We need only to look at the stories of Jesus’ life shared by the gospel writers of the Bible.
Jesus came on the scene at a time when Roman imperialism created unjust class systems that caused civil unrest among the people of his day. He like King, was deemed a radical by the people of His day. His ideas and declarations were not popular among people with power and privilege, but wildly popular among the poor and needy. Jesus’ message frightened the powerful elite because it was moving the poor to the front of the line in a culture that was built to remind those without power or wealth that they weren’t rich or powerful. The “Kingdom of Heaven” is a system of governance that isn’t ruled by human power, but by God himself as it’s ruler. God, who created all people in His image, doesn’t discriminate based on gender, race, status, or influence. A Kingdom ruled by God would, according to Jesus, elevate the destitute and bring down the oppressive rich and powerful.
This is a message that Dr. King brought forward during the last years of his life. He began to be outspoken about government that favored the rich at the expense of the poor. The reason he was in Memphis to begin with was to fight for better pay for poor sanitation workers. Dr. King came to see that many of the people below the poverty line in America weren’t all minorities, but many white people fell beneath that line as well. He identified that economic discrimination was as big an advisory to justice as racial discrimination. He devoted his later years to fighting for a government that redistributed wealth and power equally for all Americans. A just system of governance would in essence elevate the poor and bring down the oppressive rich and powerful.
People with privilege, power, and wealth have historically been reluctant to make space for more people to share in that wealth and power. As Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God gained steam, those with power plotted to kill the message and the messenger. They ultimately did kill the messenger, but the message can never be killed because it came from the Creator. Jesus carried forward the message of YHWH that was established thousands of years before He lived. Moses (before Jesus) shared instructions from God about justice, peace, and love in society. Jesus moved that way of living forward in a time that resisted the idea of equal justice for all.
Thousands of years later Dr. King found himself fighting for the same fair and just system as Jesus. King fought for the justice, peace, and love that God told Moses to establish as values for His people. He became a beacon of hope for the poor and oppressed, and as his movement gained steam, those with power…
Once again, a messenger was killed, but the message lived on.
Today we remember the death of MLK days after we remembered the death and resurrection of Jesus. We remember why both men were executed. Both fought for the weak against the strong. Both had a picture of a system of governance that made space for the impoverished to have the same human rights as the wealthy. Both men believed that if it cost them their lives to move the message forward to the next generation, they would willingly give their lives. We all respect that kind of courage and fortitude. We all want to be on the right side of history, so I’ll leave you with two questions.
How can you move the message of Jesus and Dr. King forward today?
Are you willing to move it forward even if it cost you?