“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” – Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount
In 1965, 100 years after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, and after more than a decade of intense struggle from the Civil Rights Movement, the President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, submitted a Voting Rights Bill to Congress and urged it to be passed. He anticipated opposition, but predicted deliberately and forcefully, “we shall overcome,” quoting the anthem of the Civil Rights movement. Thousands of men, women, and children had marched for this moment. Voices had been raised for this moment. Blood had been shed for this moment.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his closest allies watched the speech from a hotel room in Selma, Alabama, and wept.
Today, Dr. King is almost universally proclaimed as a national hero. He is cited by politicians of all backgrounds as an inspiration. Dr. King was a peacemaker. We celebrate his courage and his work with statues and holidays and special chapels. But peacemakers are rarely celebrated in their own time. They’re disruptive. They make us uncomfortable. They can provoke fear and anger in us. It is messy work being a peacemaker.
In his own time, Dr. King was powerful and persuasive. He was the figurehead of a movement. Many thousands followed his lead and found hope in his words. He frequently stated that he did not make the movement, but the movement made him. But he was far from revered in his time. He spoke with a prophetic voice, and he stepped on a lot of toes. This made him controversial and he was viewed as a troublemaker. Surveys of Southern white Christian responses to Dr. King mostly ranged from nervous reluctance about his cause to outright hatred for the man. The majority of people were not opposed to the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. They were opposed to the tactics. The marches were disruptive, the reactions were violent, and the world was watching. They were embarrassing to our country.
On April 12th, 1963, on Good Friday, Dr. King was arrested with several at a march in Birmingham, AL on the charges of “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.” He was accused by local clergy as being an outside agitator bringing trouble to their town. King collected scraps of paper and used the margins of a newspaper smuggled into the jail to compose “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In this letter, Dr. King stated his desire for peace when black and white citizens would be considered equal and share in the same freedoms together. He stated that injustice anywhere was a threat to justice everywhere.
Peace doesn’t come from ignoring a problem. Peace doesn’t come from conquering the problem. Peace comes from overcoming differences and sitting at the table together. That is uncomfortable. It is dangerous too.
How did Dr. King become a peacemaker, anyway? He didn’t just spring up out of the ground, give the “I Have a Dream” speech, and march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
At the time of the Rosa Parks incident with the bus and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 1950s, Dr. King was a pastor of a medium-sized church in Atlanta who quickly became a figurehead in this movement. He recognized the spiritual vitality of the movement and anticipated the deadly resistance against it. He realized that his own faith was casual and inherited from his long family line of Baptist preachers. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were preachers. Considering whether his faith was his own is a question I believe many of our students can relate to.
When he began receiving death threats and threats against his family, he recognized he could not face the opposition with half-hearted faith in God. He came to a point of desperation and despair. He recalled one night praying at his kitchen table.
“I had to know God for myself… I prayed out loud that night. I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I am weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this…’ And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world (Matt. 28:20).”
That experience transformed Dr. King into one of the most steadfast advocates of human rights the world has ever known.
The Black Church in America had a long history of resisting racism and violence and of mobilizing social and political ideologies. Black churches were not only houses of worship but of education and mobilization as well. African Americans had no representation or station in their country, but they had a voice in the church. Dr. King’s discipleship was steeped in this tradition.
He was also extremely well versed in philosophy & strategy. He had the kind of education we are trying to create together here at our school. Dr. King could cite the prophet Amos or the apostle Paul in one breath, and Plato and Henry David Thoreau in the next. His mind was sharp. When he saw this movement of people standing against injustice, he responded with his faith, his discipleship, and his education.
Then, in 1963, Dr. King gave his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream.” It was delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial facing the National Mall in Washington D.C. Thousands were gathered in person. Thousands more watched on television. He gave the speech that historic day largely without notes. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And he said the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. I believe we see these teachings from Jesus embodied in this speech. The many hours of prayer, study, conversations, and demonstrations poured out of him. He just spoke from his heart and his mind and his soul, moved by the Spirit.
That is what created the “I Have a Dream” speech. That is what prompted Dr. King and so many others to march in the face of violence with courage. That is what empowered them to love those who hurt them. That is what prompted Dr. King and so many others to be arrested. That is what transformed Dr. King into a peacemaker.
As we consider this legacy, I believe it is most honorable to ask ourselves how we might become peacemakers in our lifetimes as well? How might our students? Many of them are on the right track already. They are being discipled here at our school. Hopefully, many of them have loving churches that are also discipling them. They are getting a deep education here as well, engaging in the words of the prophet Amos and the apostle Paul as well as Plato and Henry David Thoreau. I think another key component is to practice service.
In serving others we train ourselves to love others, to practice mercy, and to seek justice. Practicing service is a simple and beautiful way to celebrate Dr. King’s work and the work of the many thousands who were part of the movement. Take out the trash or do the dishes when no one is watching or asking. Put away your own laundry. Help a friend who is struggling with work without a teacher asking you to do so. Pick up trash in your neighborhood or at your favorite playground. Bring something special in your lunch to share with a friend.
Simple acts practiced over a long time form our hearts, souls, and minds to serve.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”