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STRENGTH TO LOVE by Martin Luther King, Jr.

When I was in sixth grade, I switched from a public school to a private Christian school. My mom had converted to Christianity when I was in third grade. My dad, vehemently opposed to Christianity at the time, didn’t like how my education was going. And I was pretty unhappy. When I arrived on the Christian scene—an emersion experience, basically—I was entirely out of my element. Even in sixth grade, secular humanism was the name of the game.

One of my first memories from this Christian emersion experience is of an assignment to write a report on Martin Luther. Martin Luther! Ha! I could do that! I got right to it! I don’t know how far I actually got before the teacher kindly informed me that Martin Luther was not the same person as Martin Luther King, Jr.—and he wanted me to write a report on Martin Luther. I was all, like, Who’s Martin Luther? I’ve never heard of that guy!

But I did know about Martin Luther King, Jr., the cultural icon, the hero.

Which is to say that I, like many people, had grown up with the presence, the reality, the idea of MLK. That guy I knew! This is a real blessing, I’d say. I can honestly say that the vast majority of people in my life—secular or Christian—think MLK was an amazing man who changed the world. I would bet that most sixth graders in America could, minimally, relate to my mistake.

Martin Luther King, Jr., yes!

Martin Luther, huh?

It’s a huge blessing that today, in America, people love the ideas of MLK—this shouldn’t be discounted. MLK is truly a cultural icon, usurped—is that word too strong?—by America to represent solid principles about equality and justice. But would the American public recognize or eagerly embrace MLK as a predecessor of serious Christian thought? Would they see him as a Christian scholar? Is he understood as more than a poster child for civil rights?

(Forget my Martin Luther story. I’m just using it to illustrate the pervasiveness of MLK on the American landscape.)

Strength to Love is an amazing work, comprehensive, Christian, the book you should read if you grew up with the images of the man, the photos and the footage, the brief—and, no doubt, necessary—dips into his writing with “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the clips from his “I Have A Dream” speech, scenes from the March on Washington. In this book, it’s clear that MLK is more than a cultural icon; he’s a Christian philosopher, thinker, and preacher!

Consider a few questions: How theologically-grounded were his ideas on race, segregation, and nonviolence? Was he really thinking in terms of a biblical worldview? In other words—and I’m not sure if this is a good way to put it, but I’ll try it out—was MLK a preacher or a politician? Was he a biblical scholar? Did he “impose” his civil rights agenda on Christianity?

Strength to Love is a collection of sermons—which I do wish were dated and annotated a bit more—that reveals, perhaps surprisingly, how full his theology was. Whatever criticisms get hurled his way—and you know how this happens; you know about the elephant in the room in which MLK occupies—it’s important see MLK as a man of God, a man with a personal God and a personal relationship with that God, a man who was more than an American cultural icon. He is that too, and let’s be thankful for that. But he’s 100% preacher, as well.

When I think back on my sixth grade self, I remember how he was—in my eyes—a cultural icon pretty much divorced from any robust Christian theology.

This book really reveals the complexity of his thinking as a Christian. And MLK was, indeed, a thinker. As he so aptly puts it, “A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.” He spells out, slowly, biblically, his philosophy on race, equality, activism.

One comment, which is less criticism and more reality-check, is that the book is a little time-bound. (I don’t think this affects the relevancy one bit, however; it just requires the reader to understand history.) These sermons were written and delivered during a unique historical juncture. The Civil Rights Movement was in full-swing. The Cold War was heating up, and nukes were scaring everyone. Communism was threatening. These historical concerns definitely infiltrate MLK’s thinking—which ends up affecting us as readers. We end up asking (quite a bit, actually), What would MLK do? His attention to current events makes the contemporary reader wonder how MLK would approach ISIS or terrorism, what his position would be on abortion or gay rights, how his pacifism would stand in 2015. These are actually pretty unfair questions, but they definitely keep coming up. For me, personally, I was drawn to playing the what-if game (what if he were alive today?) on pacifism. I have to admit that I’d love to hear him talk about war, about how far to take pacifism. At what point, and under what circumstances, do we not turn the other cheek? Is nonviolent action an appropriate response to all international crises? Ultimately, I would assert that we can’t fairly play this game. (I also wouldn’t mind sitting down and discussing liberation theology. But . . .)

There are many compelling questions both answered and raised here. How many times have you heard the suggestion that MLK had communist sympathies? Not true. He’s pretty clear on that one. What about how he compares philosophically or in terms of relevancy to Malcolm X? While this is not cleared up here, there’s such a full picture of his thinking that it’s possible to surmise. One thing that is especially clear is that MLK put on spiritual armor; he fought with Truth on his side; his kind of battle wrought would be spiritual and and it would be victorious. How about categorizing MLK’s Christianity as liberal or conservative? MLK addresses this: candidly, I think. He points out weaknesses and strengths in each school of thought.

There are about a million relevant quotes I could leave you with, seriously—many about what it means to love one another, and what it means to be part of the Church. These are sermons, and they’re addressed to the Church. Though the American public has embraced him, the Church needs to fully recognize him as one of their own—and take on this legacy.

This is the one MLK book you should read if you’re only going to read one. I feel like I filled out my presumed understanding of what MLK was all about. Though I grew up all pro-MLK, which only increased with my teeny-bopper U2 craze because they were also pro-MLK, I didn’t get the full picture: till now! I didn’t see him as a Christian scholar. Maybe I secularized him to make him palatable. I drew him away from other churchy figures in order to make him an American cultural icon. But, in fact, this is a major—albeit radical—Christian thinker!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the quality of the writing. King’s use of figurative language is amazing, and I’m definitely not the first to point this out. The last two chapters of this book are gold. In chapter 14, King crafts an imaginary letter—an epistle—from Paul to the American church. I love this prose: “American Christians, you may master the intricacies of the English language and you may possess the eloquence of articulate speech; but even though you speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, you are like sounding brass or tinkling cymbal.” The last chapter, titled “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” includes this line: “I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.”

This collection of sermons is an opportunity for the church to see MLK fully, to understand the church’s responsibility in relation to racism, to gain a broader and biblical understanding of love, and to see the biblical foundation for his principles.

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