Attending a national conference on preaching here in the Washington, D.C. area this past week, I noted many references to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the recently past 40th anniversary of his tragic assassination was referred to by speaker after speaker. King was certainly a giant in our history, a man of thought and action remembered as someone who had the courage of his convictions.
Dr. King was a great man on so many levels. But he was first a Pastor-Preacher, erudite and eloquent – persuasive and passionate. And with preaching in the news recently, I revisited some of his last sermons and speeches, wondering how they’d play in today’s cultural and political climate.
Of course, such a translation of any discourse from one era to another is potentially perilous, running the risk of ignoring the context of the remarks and the idiosyncrasy of the current moment. But I think it’s fascinating to consider the words themselves, especially in light of the firestorm recently created by the pulpit pronouncements of Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
While there are occasional similarities in language between Wright and King, there is most certainly a difference in tenor and tone. Yet, Dr. King could be a controversialist himself when it came to saying provocative things from the podium or pulpit.
A year to the day before his death in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. occupied the pulpit of Riverside Church in Manhattan. This church, built against the backdrop of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920’s, was founded by Harry Emerson Fosdick and John D. Rockefeller Jr. - a liberal preacher with a generous benefactor. Mr. Rockefeller initially donated more than $10.5 million and his contribution grew to more than $32 million by 1959 – a case of petrodollars funding Protestant liberalism.
As Dr. King spoke to a crowd of nearly 4,000 on April 4, 1967, he said that as a religious leader he wanted to “move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high ground of a firm dissent.” His subject was not Civil Rights – it was the Vietnam War.
Though careful to talk about America as his “beloved nation,” and not at all hesitant to address the crowd as “my fellow Americans,” he said that “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” was “my own government.”
At that time, polls indicated that nearly 75% of Americans supported the war.