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.

Clinging to Infinite Hope

Though MLK’s “Dream” continues to inspire us, for millions of Americans it’s still a dream deferred. Nevertheless, we hang on to its truth.

In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Black History Month is one of the times of year that we, as Americans, ask ourselves how close are we to achieving this ideal espoused by Dr. King. How are we doing? Do we live in a country that has transcended the brutally ugly — and often violent — racism that has in many ways defined our country during much of its history?

It is tempting to answer “yes,” and to highlight, as evidence, many of the achievements and gains over the last several decades, including the election of that “skinny kid with a funny name” to the White House. Yet the sad reality remains that even more than 45 years after Dr. King’s speech, far too many people living in this country are still defined not by their character or abilities, but by their racial and ethnic background.

A few recent statistics tell the story:

A 2009 study found that 32 percent of Latinos said that they, a family member, or a close friend was discriminated against in the past five years because of their racial or ethnic background. With the passage of Arizona’s new immigration law, SB 1070, and similar measures, that number has likely increased in recent months.

A 2005 Gallup poll revealed that 31 percent of Asian Americans and 26 percent of blacks reported experiencing an incident of discrimination while at work during the previous 12 months.

One national survey reported that a majority of Latinos do not have confidence that they will be treated fairly by police officers. That same survey found that nearly two-thirds of blacks (as opposed to approximately one-quarter of whites) do not believe that local police officers treat blacks and whites equally.

Recent unemployment rates strongly indicate that the color of people’s skin still plays a role in the job market. In the fall of 2010, when the unemployment rate was 8.7 percent for whites, it was 12.4 percent for Latinos, and 16.1 percent for blacks. A recent study found that nearly 40 percent of previously employed black New Yorkers were unemployed for more than a year during the recession. That same number is 24 percent for whites.

These discomforting statistics should not cause us to lose faith in the ideal that Dr. King espoused on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial decades ago. Rather, they should serve as a reminder that despite the progress that has been made, Dr. King’s dream has not yet been realized for millions of Americans. They also should serve as a challenge: that we use events like Black History Month and last month’s MLK Day not merely to reflect on the achievements of a race of people and their slain hero, but that we also take them as an opportunity to address the inequalities and discriminations that still permeate our society.

And that is a challenge that people of faith are particularly capable of meeting. After all, it was Dr. King’s faith that gave him the courage to stand in the face of deeply entrenched racism and demand justice. It was faith that allowed individuals like Fannie Lou Hamer to persevere when all outward signs probably told them to stop. It was faith that allowed King, Hamer, and others to understand the essential truth that while “we must accept finite disappointment,” we must “never lose infinite hope.”

This article originally appeared at the God’s Politics blog of Sojourners.


King of the Big Screen?

pop circumstance impactThe children of America’s greatest peacemaker, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., are once again squabbling over the rights to their parents’ estate. Following DreamWork’s announcement that Steven Spielberg would produce a biopic of King’s life, it came to light that only one of the three surviving siblings, Dexter King, actually gave permission to the studio. The others now say the sale of these rights is invalid. What a shame. As of now, DreamWorks says it will not move ahead with the project until all the King siblings are on the same page.

If the film does actually make it into production, we’re curious about who Spielberg will get to play the starring role. Sean Smith at Entertainment Weekly is throwing Jeffrey Wright’s name in the ring. You’ll remember him from Casino Royale (Felix Leiter), Cadillac Records (Muddy Waters), and W (Colin Powell). He delivers strong performances in all of his flicks and even played King in the 2001 HBO movie Boycott. He could be a great choice, but to be honest, the pickings are slim. All of the standby black male leads like Denzel Washington, Will Smith, or Forrest Whitaker aren’t right for the role, either due to age or body type. Perhaps this will be the career-making breakout role for an emerging black actor with little notoriety. We want someone who can allow us to sink into King’s life, evoking the aura of the great preacher, without the ghosts of his previous roles haunting the screen.

Idol Thoughts

By now, you’ve probably heard about 23-years-old church worship leader Kris Allen’s win on American Idol. Though he clearly lacked the crowd appeal of competitor Adam Lambert, past crowd-pleasing winners have taught us an important lesson: American Idol viewers don’t always translate into CD buyers. Last year’s winner David Cook has experienced only minor success despite his popularity and talent. The question now is what kind of album will Kris Allen make? Will the support of Christians that likely pushed him to the top on Idol ultimately help or handicap Allen artistically as he goes to work on debut album? Time will tell.

‘Game’ Over

In case you’d forgotten how old you’re getting, this past week marked the 25th anniversary of The Cosby Show. Most of the cast celebrated with a reunion on the Today Show on Tuesday. However, celebration over the inroads African Americans have made on television was short-lived for some fans as news surfaced Thursday of the CW network’s cancellation of The Game and Everybody Hates Chris. While the content of both shows lacked the strong moral character of The Cosby Show, sometimes reinforcing negative stereotypes of the black community — The Game‘s Wendy Raquel Robinson’s colorful “ghetto hustler” persona and the ongoing baby mama drama storyline between Tia Mowery (Melanie Barnett) and Pooch Hall (Derwin Davis) are examples — many African Americans were just happy to see black actors on television in lead roles that offered realistic portrayals of African American life. UrbanFaith’s own Nicole Symmonds broke down the lack of multi-dimensional black characters on television for us at her Loudmouth Protestant blog, saying she doesn’t think the CW is prejudiced, just shortsighted. The network “does well at depicting the many faces of white America while giving black America short shrift. We exist!” Is there any positive urban programming left on television? What are you watching these days?

Ciara’s ‘Mama’ Drama

The drama surrounding pop and R&B singer Ciara’s controversial change in management has extended to the release of her film debut in the gospel movie Mama, I Want to Sing! Back in 2007, websites like BlackVoices were buzzing about Ciara’s starring role opposite Patti LaBelle and Lynn Whitfield. But since the studios originally had hoped to piggyback off of Ciara’s album promotion, when the record label delayed Fantasy Ride‘s release the studios were forced to push back the film as well. Now FoxFaith and CodeBlack have scrapped plans for a movie theater release, sending the film straight to DVD this August or September. We sure hope the movie’s worth all the trouble. Mama, I Want to Sing! is the longest-running off-Broadway black theater musical in history, about a preacher’s daughter who leaves the church choir to become an international pop star. The original stage play was written by Vy Higginsen and loosely based on her sister Doris Troy’s rise to fame.

From Beyoncé to Smokie

BET has released the nominees for the 2009 BET Awards, set to air live on June 28th at 8 p.m. ET/PT. We’re sure all the usual suspects will appear, like Beyoncé and Kanye West who are both scheduled to perform. But we’re more interested in the gospel music category, as its always telling to find out who’s garnering the most attention in the secular music arena. Nominees for Best Gospel Artist include Regina Belle, Smokie Norful, Shirley Caesar, Trin-I-Tee 5:7, and Mary Mary. It’s nice to see Smokie Norful and Trin-I-Tee 5:7 getting some love, as both were passed over for Dove Award nominations. Who do you think should win the category?

DMX the Televangelist?

While finishing up a 90-day jail sentence for drugs, fraud, and animal cruelty, rapper DMX told reporters about plans to start his own Christian TV show called Pain and Perseverance. He said, “It’s about how I can reach people that the average person can’t reach because I’m grounded. I’m going to give my first sermon, in the church. That’s going to be incredible for me and hopefully the congregation of that church.” This isn’t the first time DMX has talked about going into ministry. Back in March 2003, he toyed with the idea of retiring from rap, but eventually decided to continue his career after seeking advice from born-again rapper Mase. “I talked to Mase. I said, ‘Dog! I’m fed up with this rap sh–. I know the Lord. I know my true calling is to preach the Word, where do I go from here?’ He was like, ‘As long as the Lord gives you the talent to do what you do, do it. He’ll call you when he’s ready.'” Fast forward a few years and X was back to battling the demons of drug use and other criminal activity from his past. But maybe now DMX is ready. God’s clearly had a hold on his life for some time, as X often talks about his strong desire for a deeper relationship with Christ and a hunger for his Bible. We want to give him grace and trust that he’s serious this time. But we’ll believe it when we see it.