Dr. Cheryl Sanders


“If we’re going to take Martin Luther King Jr. seriously in theological education as someone worthy of being studied, we can’t just do a service, celebration or lecture on his anniversary,” said Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders, senior pastor of the Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C. and this year’s guest speaker at the 2014 MLK Jr. Lecture Series at Fuller Seminary.

Instead, Sanders, who is also a professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University School of Divinity, told the audience that she would be speaking on the leadership legacy of the historic figure.

“I’d like to suggest particular roles King played that we can use as a guide to our pedagogy in the academy as we are preparing people for leadership and professional formation for ministry,” she said, noting that these roles can then be adopted by people who cherish King’s legacy, ministry, and are willing to take up his “prophetic mantle.”

The seven leadership roles that King possessed and exemplified, and “are worthy of emulation by religious leaders of our time,” are that of orator; organizer; opportunist; optimist; operative; organic intellectual; and oracle, Sanders explained. She emphasized that embedded in each role are corresponding gifts of virtue such as “hunger and thirst for righteousness, purity of heart, right motivation, and equanimity under pressure.”

Firstly, the role of orator is to communicate ideas to motivate diverse audiences, Sanders said.

“It’s not the communication, it’s the motivation,” she said. King would often use proverbial expressions, scriptures, and quotes as part of his oratory presentation to add imagery and expressiveness to his speech. Sanders explained that people today can study him as an orator and watch his effectiveness in communicating motivation even in this age of social media.

King also played the role of an organizer to develop and sustain a following to achieve goals and ends. Sanders noted that King grew up in the African American church as a preacher’s son. Because he belonged to middle-class society and was very bright, he was able to attend college at the age of 16. There, King, was involved in fraternities and societies. As a result, Sanders said, by the time King was through seminary and hitting the public sphere, he understood how organizations, clubs, and networks operate. He was also able to speak to both white America and the Black poor. This allowed him to be successful as an organizer, and to speak with “unflinching honesty and undeniable authenticity.”

Opportunity is also an important part of leadership, Sanders said. Opportunists can harness media and technology to seize the moment. Pointing to an image of King’s cover photo in Time Magazine, Sanders explained that King would often present himself as a Black leader familiar with European intellectual trends.

“Opportunist isn’t a bad word,” Sanders said. “It’s recognizing that having a PhD from Boston University meant King is conversant in broader audiences than just the traditional Black church audience.”

King acquired respectability in a broader audience, and took advantage of opportunities to be in the media.

King was also an optimist, able to inspire hope in resistance to dread and despair. Sanders noted optimism doesn’t just mean dreaming and hoping. Not every protest King led was successful, she said, which made it all the more important for him to be an optimist “so in the face of failure he can speak a word of hope that is meaningful.”

Sanders also explained that optimism means having the ability to see what change looks like.

“Protest of injustice is a good and necessary thing, but you need to have an alternative in mind,” she said. “You can’t just tear stuff down. You need to have an inkling of what is possible.”

Leaders can also learn to be an operative – a person who achieves objectives of a larger interest. Pointing to a photo of King standing behind President Lyndon B. Johnson as he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Sanders noted that the photo communicated “politics of compromise.”

“As an operative, you know when to hold ’em, and you know when to fold ’em,” she said. The photo showed King being a successful operative, because he was able to diminish his role, and allow the person with power to achieve what was the best interest of his people.

King also played the role of organic intellectual, able to fuel activism with academic agility.

“Martin Luther King Jr. was the most successful organic intellectual in American history,” Sanders said. “Never before has a figure outside of elected public office linked the life of the mind with social change with such moral persuasion and political effectiveness.”

Sanders explained that King became an organic intellectual by being shaped through his prophetic Black church tradition, the liberal Christianity he encountered in his scholarly training, prophetic Ghandian method of non-violence, and the prophetic American civil religion that fuses secular and sacred history and combines Christian themes of deliverance and salvation with political ideals of democracy. King exemplified “the best of the life of the mind involved in public affairs.”

In addition, King had the ability to talk to people who were not his intellectual peers – to make himself available to even young children.

“As intellectuals, we can’t afford to shelter ourselves in our ivory towers,” Sanders said. “And we have to be not just available, but willing. The American way is to relate up and not relate down, because people on the up will help you to advance.” However, Sanders reminded the audience of the scripture passage in Matthew, when Jesus told the disciples to let the children come to him.

Lastly, Dr. King was an oracle. Sanders pointed to his last sermon, in which he accurately predicted his death, as evidence of King’s ability to discern vision and voice in the realm of the Spirit.

“An orator crafts a speech or sermon,” Sanders said. “An oracle speaks what is heard in the ear or the heart. When King spoke the night before his assassination, he spoke of things not from a book. He was hearing from another realm.”

Sanders concluded by echoing that the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is not just a holiday or an occasion, but to mind the lessons that will serve us going forward.

“The role of the public pastorate can be elevated and enhanced by individuals who have been schooled in the various leadership roles exemplified by King and we can teach and equip our theological students to pursue leadership development and professional formation beyond the traditional roles of pastor, priest, and preacher to equip them to care more effectively for the soul of a nation,” she said.

Click here to watch Dr. Sanders’ MLK Celebration sermon at Fuller’s All-Seminary Chapel titled “Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Dream, Vision, March.”

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