It’s 11:37 pm on April 4, 2014. Forty-six years ago tonight our nation was trying to come to grips with the news that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. I’m in Chicago and have had a very busy day with my wife and daughter. I didn’t get to see or hear any news throughout the day, but I was surprised when I got online this evening to see how little is being said about the significance of this day.
I decided to do some reading before going to bed. A couple of days ago I started Henri Nouwen’s The Road to Peace, so that is where I went. I didn’t realize that one of the chapters in this collection is Nouwen’s reflections on attending Dr. King’s funeral. He recounts that he was in Chicago when he heard the news. After speaking in Chicago, flying to Kansas City, speaking and visiting in Kansas, he felt as though he needed to fly to Atlanta to say goodbye. He described standing with the crowd outside of Ebenezer Baptist Church and marching with the funeral procession to Morehouse Seminary.
I was there just a few weeks ago. I sat in the old, historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and listened to a recording of one of Dr. King’s sermons. I toured his birth home and prayed as I stood before his crypt. I saw the wagon—the one that Nouwen describes—that carried his coffin. I spent a day trying to reflect on what Dr. King taught about the ethic of love.
For several years I’ve read and studied Dr. King. He was far from perfect. In so many ways he was a broken vessel. And yet, God used him in a manner that is still impacting our world. What has consistently attracted me to his theology and his life is the fact that Dr. King believed and lived the non-violence that Jesus taught. Some like to credit Gandhi with mentoring King in non-violence. While Dr. King certainly learned some tactical things from Gandhi’s experience, it was the gospel of Jesus Christ that formed the heart of his non-violent resistance to evil.
That’s why I think Dr. King’s legacy is so important—so incredibly important. American Christians don’t seem to value this aspect of Kingdom living that is central to the faith. I’m convinced that most Christians in our nation don’t see a connection between the Sermon on the Mount, the cross and our call to overcome evil with good. It is as though we can put the New Testament on a shelf and believe that might is right. Gandhi—who was not a Christian—thought Jesus’ words were pretty direct. He said that the only people who did not understand the non-violence of Jesus were Christians.
I was hoping that there would be some way that today I could commemorate Dr. King’s passing. I didn’t expect to open a book in the final moments of the day—after driving down Lake Shore Drive—to read that while travelling on that same road Henri Nouwen had been trying to comprehend what had just happened. I didn’t know that Nouwen would relate to me tonight his memories of “the small red-brick church” which formed a powerful experience for me just a few weeks ago.
Henri Nouwen concludes his thoughts on those difficult days by saying…
“…I knew that out of my exhaustion, a new faith could grow, a faith in the possibility of nonviolent love. And while they carried away his body and started to move away from me, I felt a new joy, reassured that tomorrow was a new day with a new promise.”
Thank you, Dr. Nouwen. Thank you, Dr. King.