How a heritage of black preaching shaped MLK’s voice in calling for justice

How a heritage of black preaching shaped MLK’s voice in calling for justice

Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the Freedom March on Washington in 1963.
Bettmann/Contributor via Getty images

The name Martin Luther King Jr. is iconic in the United States. President Barack Obama mentioned King in both his Democratic National Convention nomination acceptance and victory speeches in 2008, when he said,

“[King] brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln’s Memorial…to speak of his dream.”

Indeed, much of King’s legacy lives on in such arresting oral performances. They made him a global figure.

King’s preaching used the power of language to interpret the gospel in the context of black misery and Christian hope. He directed people to life-giving resources and spoke provocatively of a present and active divine interventionist who summons preachers to name reality in places where pain, oppression and neglect abound.
In other words, King used a prophetic voice in his preaching – the hopeful voice that begins in prayer and attends to human tragedy.

So what led to the rise of the black preacher and shaped King’s prophetic voice?

In my book, “The Journey and Promise of African American Preaching,” I discuss the historical formation of the black preacher. My work on African American prophetic preaching shows that King’s clarion calls for justice were offspring of earlier prophetic preaching that flowered as a consequence of the racism in the U.S.

From slavery to the Great Migration

First, let’s look at some of the social, cultural and political challenges that gave birth to the black religious leader, specifically those who assumed political roles with the community’s blessing and beyond the church proper.

In slave society, black preachers played an important role in the community: they acted as seers interpreting the significance of events; as pastors calling for unity and solidarity; and as messianic figures provoking the first stirrings of resentment against oppressors.

The religious revivalism or the Great Awakening of the 18th century brought to America a Bible-centered brand of Christianity – evangelicalism – that dominated the religious landscape by the early 19th century. Evangelicals emphasized a “personal relationship” with God through Jesus Christ.

This new movement made Christianity more accessible, livelier, without overtaxing educational demands. Africans converted to Christianity in large numbers during the revivals and most became Baptists and Methodists. With fewer educational restrictions placed on them, black preachers emerged in the period as preachers and teachers, despite their slave status.

Africans viewed the revivals as a way to reclaim some of the remnants of African culture in a strange new world. They incorporated and adopted religious symbols into a new cultural system with relative ease.

Rise of the black cleric-politician

Despite the development of black preachers and the significant social and religious advancements of blacks during this period of revival, Reconstruction – the process of rebuilding the South soon after the Civil War – posed numerous challenges for white slaveholders who resented the political advancement of newly freed Africans.

As independent black churches proliferated in Reconstruction America, black ministers preached to their own. Some became bivocational. It was not out of the norm to find pastors who led congregations on Sunday and held jobs as schoolteachers and administrators during the work week.

Others held important political positions. Altogether, 16 African Americans served in the U.S. Congress during Reconstruction. For example, South Carolina’s House of Representatives’ Richard Harvey Cain, who attended Wilberforce University, the first private black American university, served in the 43rd and 45th Congresses and as pastor of a series of African Methodist churches.

Others, such as former slave and Methodist minister and educator Hiram Rhoades Revels and Henry McNeal Turner, shared similar profiles. Revels was a preacher who became America’s first African American senator. Turner was appointed chaplain in the Union Army by President Abraham Lincoln.

To address the myriad problems and concerns of blacks in this era, black preachers discovered that congregations expected them not only to guide worship but also to be the community’s lead informant in the public square.

The cradle of King’s spiritual heritage

Many other events converged as well, impacting black life that would later influence King’s prophetic vision: President Woodrow Wilson declared entrance into World War I in 1917; as “boll weevils” ravaged crops in 1916 there was widespread agricultural depression; and then there was the rise of Jim Crow laws that were to legally enforce racial segregation until 1965.

Such tide-swelling events, in multiplier effect, ushered in the largest internal movement of people on American soil, the Great “Black” Migration. Between 1916 and 1918, an average of 500 Southern migrants a day departed the South. More than 1.5 million relocated to Northern communities between 1916 and 1940.

Records of immigration and passenger arrivals during the Great Migration stored at the National Archives in Washington.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

A watershed, the Great Migration brought about contrasting expectations concerning the mission and identity of the African American church. The infrastructure of Northern black churches were unprepared to deal with the migration’s distressing effects. Its suddenness and size overwhelmed preexisting operations.

The immense suffering brought on by the Great Migration and the racial hatred they had escaped drove many clergy to reflect more deeply on the meaning of freedom and oppression. Black preachers refused to believe that the Christian gospel and discrimination were compatible.

However, black preachers seldom modified their preaching strategies. Rather than establishing centers for black self-improvement focused on job training, home economics classes and libraries, nearly all Southern preachers who came North continued to offer priestly sermons. These sermons exalted the virtues of humility, good will and patience, as they had in the South.

Setting the prophetic tradition

Three clergy outliers – one a woman – initiated change. These three pastors were particularly inventive in the way they approached their preaching task.

Baptist pastor Adam C. Powell Sr., the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ) pastor Florence S. Randolph and the African Methodist Episcopal bishop Reverdy C. Ransom spoke to human tragedy, both in and out of the black church. They brought a distinctive form of prophetic preaching that united spiritual transformation with social reform and confronted black dehumanization.

Bishop Ransom’s discontentment arose while preaching to Chicago’s “silk-stocking church” Bethel A.M.E. – the elite church – which had no desire to welcome the poor and jobless masses that came to the North. He left and began the Institutional Church and Social Settlement, which combined worship and social services.

Randolph and Powell synthesized their roles as preachers and social reformers. Randolph brought into her prophetic vision her tasks as preacher, missionary, organizer, suffragist and pastor. Powell became pastor at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. In that role, he led the congregation to establish a community house and nursing home to meet the political, religious and social needs of blacks.

A March 9, 1965 file photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama. King learned from these progressive black preachers who came before him.
AP Photo, File

Shaping of King’s vision

The preaching tradition that these early clergy fashioned would have profound impact on King’s moral and ethical vision. They linked the vision of Jesus Christ as stated in the Bible of bringing good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind and proclaiming liberty to the captives, with the Hebrew prophet’s mandate of speaking truth to power.

Similar to how they responded to the complex challenges brought on by the Great Migration of the early 20th century, King brought prophetic interpretation to brutal racism, Jim Crow segregation and poverty in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Indeed, King’s prophetic vision ultimately invited his martyrdom. But through the prophetic preaching tradition already well established by his time, King brought people of every tribe, class and creed closer toward forming “God’s beloved community” – an anchor of love and hope for humankind.

This is an updated version of a piece first published on Jan. 15, 2017.

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Editor’s note: This piece has been corrected to state that President Woodrow Wilson declared entrance into World War I in 1917.The Conversation

Kenyatta R. Gilbert, Professor of Homiletics, Howard University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

MLK’s vision of love as a moral imperative still matters

MLK’s vision of love as a moral imperative still matters

Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at interfaith civil rights rally, San Francisco’s Cow Palace, June 30, 1964. George Conklin

Fifty-two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the United States remains divided by issues of race and racism, economic inequality as well as unequal access to justice. These issues are stopping the country from developing into the kind of society that Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for during his years as a civil rights activist.

As a result King’s words and work are still relevant. I study the civil rights movement and the field of peace geographies. Peace geographies thinks about how different groups of people approach and work toward building the kind of peaceful society King worked to create. Americans faced similar crises related to the broader civil rights struggles in the 1960s.

So, what can the past tell us about healing the nation? Specifically, how can we address divisions along race, class and political lines?

Martin Luther King Jr.‘s understanding of the role of love in engaging individuals and communities in conflict is crucial today. For King, love was not sentimental. It demanded that individuals tell their oppressors what they were doing was wrong.

King’s vision

King spent his public career working toward ending segregation and fighting racial discrimination. For many people the pinnacle of this work occurred in Washington, D.C., when he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Less well-known and often ignored is his later work on behalf of poor people. In fact, when King was assassinated in Memphis he was in the midst of building toward a national march on Washington, D.C., that would have brought together tens of thousands of economically disenfranchised people to advocate for policies that would reduce poverty. This effort – known as the “Poor People’s Campaign” – aimed to dramatically shift national priorities to address the health and welfare of working people.

Scholars such as Derek Alderman, Paul Kingsbury and Owen Dwyer how King’s work can be applied in today’s context. They argue that calling attention to the civil rights movement, can “change the way students understand themselves in relation to the larger project of civil rights.” And in understanding the civil rights movement, students and the broader public can see its contemporary significance.

Idea of love

King focused on the role of love as key to building healthy communities and the ways in which love can and should be at the center of our social interactions.

King’s final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” published in the year before his assassination, provides his most expansive vision of an inclusive, diverse and economically equitable U.S. nation. For King, love is a key part of creating communities that work for everyone and not just the few at the expense of the many.

Love was not a mushy or easily dismissed emotion, but was central to the kind of community he envisioned. King made distinctions between three forms of love which are key to the human experience: “eros,” “philia” and most importantly “agape.”

For King, eros is a form of love that is most closely associated with desire, while philia is often the love that is experienced between very good friends or family. These visions are different from agape.

Agape, which was at the center of the movement he was building, was the moral imperative to engage with one’s oppressor in a way that showed the oppressor the ways their actions dehumanize and detract from society. He said,

“In speaking of love we are not referring to some sentimental emotion. It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense[…] When we speak of loving those who oppose us […] we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word Agape. Agape means nothing sentimental or basically affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming goodwill for all men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.”

King further defined agape when he argued at the University of California at Berkeley that the concept of agape “stands at the center of the movement we are to carry on in the Southland.” It was a love that demanded that one stand up for oneself and tells those who oppress that what they were doing was wrong.

Why this matters now

In the face of violence directed at minority communities and of deepening political divisions in the country, King’s words and philosophy are perhaps more critical for us today than at any point in the recent past.

As King noted, all persons exist in an interrelated community and all are dependent on each other. By connecting love to community, King argued there were opportunities to build a more just and economically sustainable society which respected difference. As he said,

“Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community… Therefore if I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavages of a broken community.”

King outlined a vision in which we are compelled to work toward making our communities inclusive. They reflect the broad values of equality and democracy. Through an engagement with one another as its foundation, agape provides opportunities to work toward common goals.

Building a community today

At a time when the nation feels so divided, there is a need to bring back King’s vision of agape-fueled community building and begin a difficult conversation about where we are as a nation and where we want to go. It would move us past simply seeing the other side as being wholly motivated by hate.

Engaging in a conversation through agape signals a willingness to restore broken communities and to approach differences with an open mind.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on Nov. 16, 2016.

Joshua F.J. Inwood is a member of the American Association of GeographersThe Conversation

The association is a funding partner of The Conversation US.

Joshua F.J. Inwood, Associate Professor of Geography Senior Research Associate in the Rock Ethics Institute, Pennsylvania State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How to avoid the mundane and dream with purpose

How to avoid the mundane and dream with purpose

The alarm goes off. Your eyelids crack open as your brain starts to register the piercing foreign and unwelcome sound chosen out of a list of stock options that came with the device. In that moment, you choose. You can attempt to acknowledge that another day has indeed started or you can prolong this inevitability with one of modern history’s greatest inventions: the snooze button.

Just like all other inevitabilities, it is time to face the fact that another day has come, and with it, your routine. A lot of times, you can pretty much predict or foresee what the day is going to look like. If you have a 9-to-5, you know that you need to get up to make sure you’re out the door in enough time to beat traffic and make it to work on time.

Then you work all day, come home, eat something, unwind, go to sleep, and do it all over again. Before you know it, you’re caught in this cycle and your life has become the one word childhood dreams and imaginations dread: mundane.

The Drum Major Instinct

As Christians, we believe fundamentally that we are all created for a God-given purpose. We believe that there is a reason we are on this earth, that our lives mean something. Scriptures like Jeremiah 29:11 and Ephesians 2:10 reinforce this belief. We serve a great (i.e. massive, full of grandeur) God and He made us so surely we are meant to be great, right?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to this feeling of being meant for something greater in his sermon “The Drum Major Instinct.” He states, “We will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. That same desire for attention, that same desire to be first… It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life.”

It is a natural inclination to want to be significant.

When we consider purpose, we must consider that which we were commanded. We’ve all heard them before: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Then, Jesus’ last instructions before He ascended to Heaven were, “Make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

This is our purpose.

Love God, love people, make disciples. In everything we do, we can point back to these three things. It’s vague and specific at the same time. How can we do these things when we are just normal people?


A word on Purpose from the late Dr. Myles Monroe


Lyle’s Story

Most people will never know Lyle Gash. He was a boy with Downs Syndrome in a rural town in the foothills of North Carolina.

When he was born, his mother and father were told he would not make it through the night. Then, when he did, they were told he wouldn’t make it through the week. Then, when he did, they were told he wouldn’t see a year. And so on, and so forth for his 24 years of life.

Lyle survived multiple open heart surgeries, kidney failure, and various other health complications. He finally went home to heaven at 24.

One might ask, “What was the point of his life? He struggled for 24 years then died. Where’s the purpose?”

Well, one year, Lyle’s mother had an idea. Watching her baby boy suffer in pain, she wanted to do something to make him feel at least a little better.

She noticed whenever he received “get well soon” cards his mood was significantly better. She wrote a simple Facebook appeal to all who would read it: “Let’s collect 10,000 cards for Lyle.”

It seemed like an insurmountable feat. However, once word got out, cards came zooming in from all over the world. Lyle even got a special card from President Barak Obama and his family. All of a sudden, the story of a boy with Downs Syndrome in small-town North Carolina was impacting the lives of thousands of people that he never would’ve dreamed of meeting.

Lyle’s story serves as a very important lesson: as long as there is breath in your body, you have purpose. It’s up to us to seek out that purpose in our everyday lives.

It’s up to us to never lose our wonder. Whether we realize it or not, in our seemingly mundane lives, we have the opportunity to dream, to encourage others, to delight in creation, and to take advantage of every second of every day.

We can search out beauty and joy. We can take pause and acknowledge the miracle of every breath we take in. We can help others. Life becomes so much more meaningful when it becomes about more than just you. Don’t let the mundane steal your purpose.

The Power of a Praying King

The Power of a Praying King

In his excellent new book, Never To Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr.(Fortress Press), Vanderbilt University religion professor Lewis V. Baldwin examines an undervalued aspect of the civil rights movement’s effectiveness. With vivid stories and a scholar’s eye for the telling detail, Baldwin brings to the forefront the centrality of this vital spiritual discipline in both King’s public ministry and his personal devotion. Baldwin’s tome is a worthy and necessary addition to the annals of MLK scholarship. The following is an excerpt from the book.
Prayer helped Martin Luther King Jr. to discover the activity of God not only in his own daily life and activities but also in the needs of humanity and in the challenges of the world. He saw the many movements for freedom in his time as outpourings of God’s spirit on the nation and the world, and prayer went hand in hand with his spirited call to resist systemic, social evil in all forms. This view of prayer’s connection to God’s work in the world, perhaps more than anything else, reflected King’s vital and distinctive blend of spirituality and social vision as well as his keen sense of the tremendous value and creative potential of prayer. It also explains why King made prayer central to the struggle for civil and human rights.

As far as King was concerned, he was involved in essentially “a spiritual movement” and not simply a struggle for equal rights, social justice, and peace; this invariably meant that prayer and praying, much like the spiritual discipline of nonviolence, had to be for him a daily activity and a total way of life. Otherwise, the quest to redeem and transform the moral and political spirit of the nation and of humanity as a whole would ultimately prove futile and perhaps even counterproductive.

King’s encounters with crisis after crisis in his protest against the personal and institutional racism of white America reinforced his conception of prayer as lived experience and as part of engaged spirituality developed in the midst of conflict and action. It is often said that the movement began with a song, but in King’s case it actually began with a prayer.

Visions and Victories

The date was December 5, 1955; the scene was King’s private study in his home at 309 South Jackson Street in Montgomery; and the challenge was a speech that he, as the newly-elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organization formed to lead the bus boycott, had to hastily prepare for the very first mass meeting held at the Holt Street Baptist Church in connection with the bus boycott. Having only fifteen minutes to prepare what he called “the most decisive speech of my life,” King, “obsessed by” feelings of “inadequacy” and in “a state of anxiety,” turned to that “power whose matchless strength stands over against the frailties and inadequacies of human nature.” King prayed for God’s guidance in delivering a speech that would be “militant enough” to arouse black people to “positive action” and “moderate enough” to keep their fervor “within controllable and Christian bounds.”

The speech, which called boycotters to courageous protest grounded in Christian love and democratic values, evoked more applause than any speech or sermon King had given up to that point, thus reinforcing his belief that God had the power to “transform” human weakness into a “glorious opportunity.” This experience confirmed King’s faith in what his ancestors had long declared about the sheer discipline, immense potential, and enduring power of prayer; and it highlighted his sense of the significance of prayer as lived theology.

As the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and a leader in the bus boycott, King increasingly came to see that secret communication with God in his private study or “closet,” so to speak, was as important as praying publicly in his pulpit. Evidently, he had other private experiences during which prayer translated a paralyzing impotence into unshakable courage, frustrating uncertainty into incurable hope, and life’s hardships into amazing vitality and feelings of triumph. In January, 1956, as the fervor driving the Montgomery bus boycott reached fever pitch, King received a telephone call at midnight from a racist who called him a “nigger” and threatened to kill him and “blow up” his home.

Deeply disturbed and unable to sleep, King retreated to his kitchen for coffee, thinking that this could possibly provide some relief. Love for family and church, devotion to the struggle, and feelings of utter helplessness gripped him in that moment of deep restlessness, painful stillness, and desperate searching. Knowing that the theology he had studied in the corridors of academia could not help him and that he had nowhere else to turn, King had a face-to-face encounter with what he, in the tradition of his forebears, called “a Waymaker,” exposing his fears, insecurities, and vulnerabilities with sincerity and humility. Great comfort came as an “inner voice” spoke to King, reminding him that he was not alone, commanding him to “stand up” for righteousness, justice, and truth, and assuring him that “lo, I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”

This serendipitous experience further convinced King that hardship, frustration, and bewilderment are often the points at which one meets God through solitude and prayer, a notion clearly substantiated by the black experience in religion. In that moment of quiet brooding, commonly referred to as “the vision in the kitchen,” King found new life in prayer, was reminded that prayer indeed mattered, and began to believe anew in how the sovereign work of the Almighty was being manifested in both his own life and in the bus protest. Moreover, the experience deepened his sense of what it meant to follow Jesus Christ as a passionate disciple, and he came to see that prayer would be a vital dimension of that which enabled him sufficiently to carry out his work. In a general sense, the experience in the kitchen further equipped King to speak from experience and thus authoritatively about the saving power of prayer. The spiritual growth wrought by that experience would become increasingly essential in sustaining King’s commitment to nonviolent struggle and in determining the nature of his responses to crises in his life.

Public Acts of Prayer

Considering the social, economic, and political dynamics at work in the 1950s, King was always willing and eager to assume the role of public prayer leader. In fact, he felt that praying publicly was central to his calling as a national leader and especially to his role as the voice of spiritual people imbued with a messianic sense of vocation and mission. He saw that public prayer, like the singing of the spirituals and anthems of the movement, was a powerful aspect of the spirituality that bonded his people in the face of oppression and that gave them the will and determination to survive, struggle, and be free, even against seemingly invincible odds. Again and again, King received practical lessons in the unifying power of public prayer from ordinary church folk who were forced to drift in and out of the disturbed world of white racists, who were the embodiments of lived faith, who had literally built churches and kept families and neighborhoods together by “talking to de Lawd” and making painful sacrifices.

King’s role as public prayer leader extended into his activities as both a pastor and civil rights leader. Much like the worship experience at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the board meetings of the MIA always included prayers, songs, scripture readings, and speeches, all of which reflected a nonviolent tone, and King, as the organization’s chairman, often gave the opening or closing prayer. At times, MIA board members such as Willie F. Alford, Ralph W. Hilson, G. Franklin Lewis, and B.D. Lambert, all clergymen, were asked to offer the invocation and prayer as part of the benediction. King constantly highlighted the need to remain in a prayerful mood and considering the challenges his people faced daily, and he insisted that MIA decisions regarding the boycott be carefully “thought about” and “prayed over” before being implemented through practical action

King himself occasionally became quite emotional while praying at mass meetings, especially after protesters were attacked and homes and churches bombed by white bigots. “Discouraged” and “revolted by the bombing,” and feeling “a personal sense of guilt” for all these problems, King was on one occasion close to tears as he asked the audience to join him in prayer. While “asking God’s guidance and direction,” King was caught in “the grip of an emotion” he “could not control” and actually “broke down in public.” His prayer built an exuberant sung finale, with the audience crying out and rejoicing. “So intense was the reaction” that King could not finish his prayer. With the help of fellow ministers, who put their arms around him, King was slowly lowered to his seat.

Here was an occasion when the traditional prayer meeting served to solidify a despised and abused people around a common faith, hope, purpose, and strategy for change. Though caught in the web of guilt and emotion, King did not stand alone, for the sense of being both suffering community and divinely ordained instrument for much-needed social change proved overwhelming for all who participated.

The emotive qualities of the black church, which often exploded into handclapping and joyous shouts, and which King had frowned on as a boy, took on a new and more personal dimension for the civil rights leader. Prayer rose to sermon, tears gave way to rejoicing, and King’s calm manner surrendered to an infectious frenzy. Hence, King’s connection to the ecstatic side of the black prayer tradition and to the African American worship experience as a whole became amazingly real. Clearly, scholars must take this and other of King’s experiences concerning public prayer in the civil rights crusade more seriously if they are to bring a true sense of the richness and power of the black church experience to the daunting work of King interpretation.

Excerpted from Never To Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr. by Lewis V. Baldwin. Used by permission of Fortress Press.

Of Kings and Thrones

Of Kings and Thrones

Jay-Z and Kanye West’s lavish “Watch the Throne” tour is in effect and may soon be coming to an arena near you (if it hasn’t already). A review of the tour’s recent Madison Square Garden show prompted me to once again reflect on how overinflated and over-the-top our pop-culture heroes can be. Far be it from me to cast aspersions on anyone’s aspirations of grandeur. Like Whitney Houston and countless others, I do, in fact, believe the children are our future. Our children can grow up to do great things and be great people.

But friends, we need to know that there is a hidden cost to greatness, especially greatness as defined by our culture.

And I’m not just talking about the moral hazards along the way.

I’m sure every June there are many commencement speeches that draw from the lesson of Mark 8:36, where Jesus famously asks, “What does it a profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” It’s become cliché to warn our young people about the dangers of living life on the fast track to wealth and notoriety.

The fact is, some moral hazards are more obvious to certain people than others.

That’s why it’s easy to take Mark 8:36 and aim it at obvious targets, like Jay-Z and Kanye. The duo, of course, is touring in support of their popularly celebrated album collaboration Watch The Throne. On that record, the multiplatinum-selling, image-conscious, superstar rappers-turned-global-icons aim the spotlight at themselves, illustrating in great detail the extent to which they’ve made careers out of unabashedly reveling in their own celebrity. The title refers to their efforts to protect their perch at the top.

You can see this in one of their more controversial songs [EXPLICIT LYRIC WARNING], “No Church in the Wild,” where each emcee uses religious themes and imagery to justify his own moral code, which of course, includes copious amounts of cocaine, fast cars, and unashamed so-called “ethical non-monogamy.” (If the rumors are true about Will Smith having a similar marital stance, then the rampant rumors of his divorce would make sense.)

So, like I said, it’s an easy target.

As someone whose job it is to comment on pop culture with a biblical worldview, Watch the Throne is low-hanging fruit because any young person with her head on straight knows intuitively that most of this stuff is bad for you.

The Missing ‘If’

Moralistic therapeutic deism is a term coined by sociologist Christian Smith that summarizes the popular spiritual beliefs of teens and twentysomethings circa 2005, a set of beliefs that endure in today’s popular culture. The idea is that good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell, and that God generally exists to help me do good things and therefore have a good life.

It is because of the pervasiveness of moralistic therapeutic deism that Watch the Throne, specifically, and both Jay-Z and Kanye West, in general, are easy targets for cultural criticism. As much as people might be impressed with their business and marketing acumen, it’s generally understood that Jay-Z has a tremendous ego (why else would Beyoncé  write a song about it?) and Kanye West, despite being incredibly talented, is also a huge douchebag.

You could chalk that up to bias against hip-hop culture, perhaps.

But no one would use these terms to describe a true American hero, someone whose contributions to our nation’s struggle for freedom and overall heritage are unquestioned and unassailable.

Someone like, for example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose memorial was recently unveiled on the national mall in Washington, D.C. No one would ever think of him as an egotist.

That is, unless you happened to read the inscription on the statue.

The recent controversy, as covered by UrbanFaith’s own Christine A. Scheller, is over the words “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness,” a paraphrase of a longer quote taken from a famous sermon entitled “The Drum Major Instinct.” According to Maya Angelou, the design process that led to those words being chosen ignored the subtle nuance of what Dr. King was trying to say, and instead cast Dr. King as an arrogant, self-promoting figure.

The key is in the missing “if.”

The famous sermon in question, which really ought to be read in its entirety, was the final sermon delivered by Dr. King at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The message, delivered on Feb. 4, 1968, explores Jesus’ response to his disciples John and James after their request for priority seating in Jesus’ kingdom. “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory,” the sons of Zebedee said. Reflecting on this moment, Dr. King implores his listeners not to judge James and John’s ambition too harshly. There’s some James and John in all of us, he says. “And there is deep down within all of us an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct — a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.”

Dr. King goes on to conclude his sermon with a now ominous-sounding request that at his funeral people not fuss over the trivial stuff, but that they remember him for the right reasons:

Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize — that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards — that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.

I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody….

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.

The sad irony of the recent controversy is that Dr. King forecasted the way his words would be eventually used to promote a vision of his life that was larger-than-life, and in this sermon he tried in vain to prevent it from happening. Four decades later, we should not be surprised that popular culture would retrofit the image of Dr. King in a manner befitting of itself, a culture that continues to be either indifferent toward or hostile to the Christ Jesus about whom King so passionately preached.

And therein lies the true hidden danger of being great in our world.

Once someone reaches a certain level of stratospheric influence and notoriety, either in their lifetime or posthumously, their legacy is constantly up for interpretation. People with selective memories and hidden agendas can appropriate their words and actions to suit their own objectives.

Approaching the Throne

I say all of this not to demonize Jay-Z and Kanye and lionize Dr. King, because even Dr. King had his own moral hazards.

The point is that as Christians, especially if we are church leaders, our life’s work isn’t ultimately judged on the specter of public opinion, but on whether or not we received Christ and how well we lived out his gospel. If our work is built on anything else, it will not last.

But if we build on the foundation of the gospel, we will receive a reward that no one will be able to take away. We won’t have to worry about others taking our words out of context, because the only words that will matter to us will be, “Well done, thy good and faithful servant.”

In his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, Dr. King also said this:

Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important, wonderful. If you want to be recognized, wonderful. If you want to be great, wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it … it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.

So I say, please … watch the throne. Better yet, approach it boldly, so that you can receive grace in your time of need.

Because Dr. King was right about what Jesus said.

The true mark of greatness is not found on a statue but on our knees.