The last few years, I have been repeatedly disappointed by the bickering and pettiness displayed by our legislators, political pundits, and candidates for office. I have longed for representatives who are informed and articulate, who habitually seek the best laws and results for the land. Unfortunately, the history I have reviewed recently suggests that we may be more like our forefathers than we would like to believe. Those who long nostalgically for more civil times should not read some of the pamphlets distributed during the election of 1800 when Jefferson defeated Adams! Neither should they watch the movie “Conspiracy” which discusses the way Washingtonians accused of working with John Wilkes Booth were unfairly stripped of their rights and executed. Although the political process was fraught with danger and contention, there were also many leaders who paid a real price for their convictions.
For example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has loomed larger than life in the hearts and minds of Americans since his assassination in 1968. The massive monument which now stands on the National Mall in Washington, DC is a physical manifestation of the spiritual giant he has been to so many of us over the past two generations. Today’s leaders can only hope to capture a fraction of the respect from his followers and fear from his opponents that Dr. King commanded during his lifetime. Yet this was never the life that he sought for himself. Indeed, if there is one lesson we can learn from this man today, it is that the best leaders are often reluctant to bear the burden of leadership, because they understand the cost is so high.
Those who have studied Dr. King’s life know that he came to a crossroads in his life in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956, after two years of pastoring Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Before accepting that position, he had intended to pursue a quiet academic career filled with teaching, studying and writing. After moving to Alabama he was made head of the pastors’ association that led the famous bus boycotts and found that he and his family were facing growing harassment by local police. One day in 1956 he stopped what he was doing and prayed at his kitchen table, asking the Lord whether such activism was worth the risk to himself and his family. These are the words he heard in response: “Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.”
All of the events that followed in his life—the ones that we remember—reflected his obedience to these words. How many of our political and community leaders today can say honestly that such obedience has been the driving force of their careers?
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.