RDC: MLK Devotion & Opening Prayer for January 15

While Monday is the official holiday, today marks the 93rd year since the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., and April 4 will mark the 54th year since his assassination at the age of 39. Dr. King was only 26 years old and in his first pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, when he was asked to lead the Montgomery bus boycott. The success of that campaign propelled King to the leadership of the civil rights movement as President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In his 13 years in leadership, he transformed the movement and advanced civil rights more than had happened since the reconstruction post-civil war.

Toward the end of his life, King was challenged by more militant activists who didn’t accept non-violent civil disobedience. He earned the enmity of President Lyndon Johnson for his ever more outspoken opposition to the war in Viet Nam. He had stepped beyond just civil rights to initiate a movement of poor people of all races and ethnicities to demand their economic rights, and, when he was assassinated, he was organizing on behalf of sanitation workers who were striking for better pay and better work conditions. We will probably never know whether the assassin, James Earl Ray, acted alone when he pulled the trigger that day on April 4, 1968. But there were clearly many people in powerful positions who would not be disappointed to see Dr. King gone.

I offer that background for two reasons. First, MLK Day is now celebrated around the nation in the most simplistic way. Even those who stand against everything in which Dr. King believed quote him as if that somehow honors his name. Second, all too often, we pigeonhole this great man as if civil rights for Black people was his only aim. As a corrective, I want to share with you a few excerpts from his speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, delivered at our own Riverside Church, exactly one year to the day before he died:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin; we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.

On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes-hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”

I think the events of the last couple of years have made it clear that the same evils that Dr. King condemned in that speech persist and in many ways are even more extreme today. Therefore, my prayer on this day is that the work we carry out together as the Riverside Development Committee, planning for this congregation, reflect a commitment to the radical revolution of values that Dr. King articulated in that speech, delivered from our own chancel. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

–The Riverside Development Committee

Click Here to Read the Full Text of “Beyond Vietnam” (PDF)

Click Here to Hear the Entire Speech