Martin Luther King, Jr Day: a Christian Holiday

Earlier this week our nation celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr day.  When I was younger, I was led to believe that MLK day was just an african-american holiday.  However, now I would argue that MLK day is one of the most Christian holidays that we celebrate.

One of the most significant issues that the early church struggled with was the fact that the work of God was not limited to one ethnicity.  That is, God’s plan was for the whole world and not merely the Jews.  This was not a fundamental change from God’s intention for chosing Abraham as the father of the Jewish nation.  In Genesis 12 God calls Abraham and promises to bless him and his descendants.  However, the purpose of choosing what would become the Jewish nation is so that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12.3).  God chose the Jews, not because he loved them more than all the other peoples and nations in the world, but because they had a special purpose to help bring God’s redemption from sin to all the nations.

Early Christians emphasized this as they pointed to God’s work among the Gentiles.  This was a contentious issue for the early Christians since they had to sort out how the Gentiles would and should orient themselves to central aspects of Judaism, namely the works of the Torah.  As part of this discussion, Paul argued in Galatians 3 that God’s grace was for all nations (all ethnicities), and he quotes Genesis 12.3 in support of his argument.  In Ephesians 2 he returns to the issue of ethnicity and argues that God has broken down the dividing wall between Jews and the rest of the world, such that one ethnicity should not be preferenced over another, for God loves all.

Martin Luther King, Jr was a champion of these same values–no one ethnicity should be given preference over others.  It was a travesty that a nation that founded itself on the freedom and equality of all its members had embedded in its constitution  institutionalized racism.  For all the talk about the being based biblical principles, the US was far from the one of the most significant ideas in the NT.  This is not just a critique of the US, because the root problem was that the church itself had forgotten one of its founding principles.  And the church today remains one of the greatest propogators of ethnic division–as they say the most racially divided time during the week is 11 o’clock on Sunday.  Christians however were the strongest voices in the abolitionist movement, as they championed the equality of God’s grace for all ethnicities.

The US is not the church, and cannot simply be run with the morals of the church because as a democracy we have to listen to all members of society.  However, one of the fundamental values of the US is that all men and women are created equal.  The Christian version of that ideal is that God’s grace extends to all nations and ethnicities, and the church should proudly include all nations among its members.  As a result, Martin Luther King, Jr day with its focus on the equality of all ethnicities celebrates one    of the most fundamental values of the NT.  It is not just an african-american holiday.  Churches should be proud to celebrate the work of this Christian brother who called us back to our theological foundations.  However, most churches are much more likely to celebrate the 4th of July at church than MLK day.  The 4th is a celebration of national divisions rather than the international, multi-ethnic unity found in the people of God.  In that sense celebrating the 4th in church is antithetical to the NT, whereas celebrating MLK day draws us back to a founding principle of NT Christianity: God loves all people, not just one nation, race or ethnicity.

4 responses

  1. King is a great religious leader…I love your reflection. His letter from the Selma jail could easily become a canonical scripture. The now deceased Catholic bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, Kenneth Untener, pointedly stated King was a great religious leader in a homily Untener gave at a King memorial service and Mass. I believe time, history and the witness of the faithful will prove this so…a civil rights leader yes, but so much more.

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