Last year was the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. For theology nerds and Reformation history junkies, it was the event of a lifetime. Hundreds of Reformational conferences were hosted and dozens of new books were written. It was tantamount to a religious Super Bowl for Protestants.
Like many churches across the world, we memorialized the occasion in a variety of ways, including a special sermon series, a midweek lecture series, and even a Reformational concert. In all the many remembrances, you could always bank on one thing—that the great German reformer, Martin Luther, would be talked about. It’s right, of course, that Luther would be given such prominence, for it’s difficult to imagine how the Protestant Reformation could have made such a wide-reaching and lasting impact without his strength of passion and steely resolve leading the charge.
The same could be said of another Martin Luther, who led a different reformation, standing for a different kind of protestantism. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929 with the name Michael King, but his father changed it to Martin Luther when he was five out of respect for the founder of the Protestant Reformation.
Though Dr. King’s theology didn’t square with his German Reformer namesake in every way, they certainly agreed on gospel essentials—all men are created in the image of God, and the love of God in Jesus Christ extends to all men. King understood that these simple but profound truths necessarily implied that all men should be treated equally with dignity and respect regardless of kindred, tribe, tongue, nation, and yes—color.
The problem was that in America at the time equality, dignity and respect between blacks and whites was missing. Schools, restaurants, hotels, and buses were segregated by color. Blacks were systematically marginalized with the enforcement of Jim Crow laws. Violence toward blacks was often swept under the rug by authorities. Seeing the systemic social, ethnic, and economic prejudice all around him, King determined to give life for the cause of civil rights.
In his now famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King references Martin Luther’s bold statement at the Diet of Worms when he was asked to recant of his beliefs, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” It’s clear that Dr. King felt himself to be in the same position when it came to the injustice and prejudice toward blacks in his day. He couldn’t recant or remain indifferent or lukewarm. The time for action was now.
Over the years of protesting for this new reformation, King won significant victories and experienced painful defeats. He was a hero to many, and a villain to others. Threats on his life and on the lives of his wife and children became commonplace. Those threats escalated as the civil rights battles grew fiercer. Ultimately, King’s commitment to public righteousness cost him his very life. Fifty years ago this year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed outside room 306 at the historic Lorraine hotel in Memphis, TN. President Ronald Reagan signed into law Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday on the third Monday of January, which means tomorrow we have the opportunity to pause and give thanks to God for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, remembering – and joining – his protest until everything is exactly as it ought to be (Revelation 21:1-4).