Voices: What would love do? Dr. King and the transforming power of love

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C. (Photo by Eric Black)

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I have been invited twice to speak at Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio as part of their Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. The last time I spoke, I thought I would include some of San Antonio’s own racial history in my speech.

While I was researching for my speech, I found a map of San Antonio’s racial segregation in housing from the 1940s. The segregation had been created by a process called “redlining,” where the federal government-backed Homeowner’s Loan Corporation (HLOC) developed a rating system to evaluate the risks associated with home lending in certain neighborhoods.

For decades the HLOC rated neighborhoods with African Americans as higher risk, which led to divestment from those neighborhoods. In San Antonio, both the West Side (Hispanic neighborhoods) and the East Side (African American neighborhoods) were rated as high risk.

As I shared with the folks assembled for the luncheon, the effects of the decades-old policy was still evident. The neighborhoods that had been disadvantaged due to racial prejudice all those years ago still have lower performing schools, lower educational attainment and higher rates of mortality. In fact, one study I found showed a 20-year difference in the average lifespan between San Antonio’s wealthy and poor neighborhoods.

The church’s response to Dr. King’s cause

I share this information for the same reason I shared it with Trinity. As we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we must remember that the cause for which he was murdered remains unfinished. In addition to the lingering effects of centuries of racial discrimination, racial hatred and prejudice is alive today.

The question before the church remains the same as in King’s day, “How will we respond?” Will the church be “an arch defender of the status quo?”

In “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King lamented church leaders who “stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” while others work to end racial and economic injustice in this country. He wrote to men and women who say those are “social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”

The truth, however, is for a disciple of Jesus Christ there is no issue in life with which Scripture is not concerned.

Scripture’s position on justice

Over and over again in Scripture, we are told justice matters to God. In the Old Testament, the prophets from Isaiah to Amos declare judgment over the people of Israel for their failure to keep God’s commands to provide justice to the poor and the marginalized.

The command to do justice is serious to God. In fact, he rejected the worship of those who had neglected his command, instead calling for “justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).

In the New Testament, Jesus condemns the Pharisees who had been faithful tithers but “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23).

Orthopraxy is a reflection of our orthodoxy.

Justice in the way of Dr. King

To post Dr. King quotes but be silent and sit on the sidelines in the face of injustice is to dishonor his legacy. More importantly, it dishonors God.

Jesus commanded his followers first to love the Lord with all our hearts and minds and second to love our neighbor as ourselves. Dr. King believed in the supernatural power of love to transform hearts and minds, and also unjust systems and laws.

For Dr. King, love and justice were linked inextricably. “Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all … love at its best is justice concretized,” he said.

In Scripture, the story of the good Samaritan illustrates that to love your neighbor is to see their humanity, their struggles, their hurts, and to take action to remedy the harm regardless of your role in the actual perpetration of the harm. 1 John 3:18 reminds us we are to love “not with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”

The church’s response to Scripture’s cause

How will the church respond in the face of injustice?

Trinity Baptist Church formed a Micah 6:8 committee to look at the ways the church could become more involved in addressing injustice in their city.

Every church and every Christian will respond differently to the “Macedonian call for aid,” as Dr. King called it in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King traveled from the projects of Chicago to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the streets of Birmingham and Memphis. The road was not easy. He was beaten, surveilled, stabbed and ultimately murdered.

Dr. King believed love was the only way. He saw in Scripture that we were transformed from God’s enemies to his children through the power of God’s love for us. He believed only love could transform hate.

He responded, not with the weapons of the world, but with the only weapon he knew powerful enough to allow the lion and the lamb to lie together as friends, to turn a persecutor to the author of half of the New Testament, and to bring the dead back to life.

While Dr. King’s work remains unfinished, his chief weapon remains. The question for us is: Will we pick love up and fight the injustices of our generation?

Kathryn Freeman, former director of public policy for the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, is a student at Baylor’s Truett Seminary. She remains passionate about Jesus, justice and discipleship.


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