Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Gift of Love Points the Way to Love in Action
January 15, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock
Before Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock ran for office to become senator-elect of Georgia, he wrote this commemorative piece in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy for Dr. King’s classic collection of sixteen sermons, A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings. We share it with you here today on Dr. King’s birthday.
No one in American history has addressed more eloquently or advanced more effectively the ideals of freedom, justice, and equality than the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. With his voice, he discredited the fallacious doctrine of white supremacy; and through his activism, he changed America, liberating the sons and daughters of “former slaves” and “former slave owners” for the possibility of what he called “the beloved community.” Dr. King bequeathed to all of us a gift of love.
His epoch-making impact on law, public discourse, and culture is all the more stunning when one considers that he was a private citizen who never ran for public office and never held any official role within government. Yet because his legacy and impact were greater than that of most presidents, King is rightly regarded as a modern father of the nation and his memorial now sits appropriately on the national mall. Hailed during his lifetime as a civil rights leader and honored in death with a memorial befitting a president, it should not be forgotten that King was at his core a preacher. In fact, his identity as preacher and prophet was basic to his self-understanding and mission.
King himself said as much when he offered that “[In] the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher. This is my being and my heritage, for I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher.” In his opening remarks, prior to preaching “The Man Who Was a Fool” at a Chicago church in 1967, he clarifies his sense of vocation in this way:
I did not come to Mount Pisgah to give a civil rights address; I have to do a lot of that . . . But before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don’t plan to run for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher.
So, this volume of sermons, which includes all but one sermon from Strength to Love, is important because here we encounter King the preacher. Also, we encounter King as pastor. All of these sermons were preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church or Ebenezer Baptist Church, congregations he actually served, respectively, as pastor and co-pastor while at the same time emerging as preacher, prophet, and pastor to an entire nation that needed to change.
In this way, his civil rights activism was rooted in his sense of ministerial vocation, and both emerged from the black church—the church that has had to be the countervailing conscience of the American churches with regard to racism, America’s original sin. So, as Martin Luther King, Jr., America’s great preacher, stood in the pulpit of Dexter Avenue during the days of the Montgomery bus boycott, and later alongside his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church, he stood well within the historical trajectory of African American prophetic Christianity. With his extraordinary academic training and preparation, King extended it and gave it a global voice such that at its height, the movement was appropriately multiracial and ecumenical, embracing believers across faith traditions and nonbelievers alike in a magnificent quest for human dignity. When the legendary Jewish cleric and friend to Dr. King, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, marched in the movement, he said he felt like his feet were praying! This deep yearning for freedom felt so strongly in Heschel’s feet and heard so clearly in Dr. King’s voice was expressed during slavery by sermons and spirituals that saw the story of black slaves through the lens of the story of Hebrew slaves marching out of Egypt. It was institutionalized by the independent black church movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and embodied in the ministries of King’s preaching forebears, whom he references in the autobiographical statement above.
His maternal great-grandfather, Willis Williams, was a preacher during slavery who well may have played a role in the establishment of a local independent black church. His grandfather, A. D. Williams, the second pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, was an activist preacher who helped to launch the Atlanta branch of the NAACP, leading the fight, as its president, to establish the city’s first secondary school for African American children. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his siblings attended the Booker T. Washington High School, which existed only because of the activist ministry of his grandfather. Also, few people know that Martin Luther King, Sr., King’s father and Ebenezer’s third pastor, led a campaign for voting rights in 1935 in Atlanta, thirty years before King and others would create the conditions necessary for passing the Voting Rights Act. Moreover, “Daddy King,” as his father was affectionately called, fought for the equalization of teachers’ salaries decades before his son and others would lead a nonviolent war against segregation itself.
The activist tradition of a church born fighting for freedom, philosophically grounded in the other sources he cites in his “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” including Walter Rauschenbush’s Social Gospel, help to explain why, for King, preaching and activism were inextricably connected. In fact, in his work the two are so seamlessly connected that it is difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. The two feed and inform each other. Hence, at the heart of the sermons printed here is a view of the gospel that rejects any truncated or interiorized spirituality that seeks to save souls while ignoring bodies or focuses narrowly on matters of private morality while ignoring the moral implications of our public policy. In “Love in Action,” he laments that:
One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying. A persistent schizophrenia leaves so many of us tragically divided against ourselves. . . . How often are our lives characterized by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds! We talk eloquently about our commitment to the principles of Christianity, and yet our lives are saturated with the practices of paganism. We proclaim our devotion to democracy, but we sadly practice the opposite of the democratic creed. We talk passionately about peace, and at the same time we assiduously prepare for war. We make our fervent pleas for the high road of justice, and then we tread unflinchingly the low road of injustice. This strange dichotomy, this agonizing gulf between the ought and the is, represents the tragic theme of man’s earthly pilgrimage.
In positive terms, Dr. King prescribed what he called in another sermon printed here, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” Herein is the clarion call of a spiritual genius and sober-minded sentinel who insists that we pray with our lips and our feet, and work with our heads, hearts, and hands for the beloved community, faithfully pushing against the tide of what he often called “the triplet evils of racism, materialism and militarism.” In a divided world and amid religious and political pronouncements in our public discourse that erroneously divide the self, we still need that message. The scandal of America’s prison-industrial complex that is disproportionately black, brown, and poor and continues to grow irrespective of actual crime rates, the yawning chasm between the haves and the have nots and the political maintenance of an unwieldy and costly Cold War–era military-industrial complex, decades after the death of Dr. King and the death of the Cold War, all suggest that we are mired in a continuing spiritual crisis that requires us to be vigilant in struggle against the triplet evils the preacher aptly identified so long ago. We need love in action. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s gift of love, embodied in word and in deed, points the way.
About the Author
The Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock is senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church and senator-elect of Georgia.