Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Prophetic Voice Rings Clear Still Today

This reflection comes to us from Yenny Delgado, a psychologist, theologian, social activist, and educator. She has more than a decade of experience working with churches, youth movements, local governments, and social organizations.

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated 50 years ago last week.  When we think back about his legacy we are often reminded of the holiday in January as well as the I have a Dream speech delivered on the March on Washington in August 1963.  However, the fullness of his prophetic voice goes beyond this one speech and sound bite. Dr. King spoke boldly against the oppressive regimes and intolerance that pervaded the United States in his day, and unfortunately, his words still resonate today. He wrote a letter that he entitled Paul’s Letter to American Christians that he delivered as a sermon at the Baptist Church of Dexter, Montgomery, Alabama, on November 4, 1956.  His prophetic words read as such:

“I understand that you have an economic system in America known as Capitalism. Through this economic system, you have been able to do wonders. You have become the richest nation in the world, and you have built up the greatest system of production that history has ever known. All of this is marvelous. But Americans, there is the danger that you will misuse your Capitalism. I still contend that money can be the root of all evil. It can cause one to live a life of gross materialism. I am afraid that many among you are more concerned about making a living than making a life. You are prone to judge the success of your profession by the index of your salary and the size of the wheel base on your automobile, rather than the quality of your service to humanity.

The misuse of Capitalism can also lead to tragic exploitation. This has so often happened in your nation. They tell me that one-tenth of one percent of the population controls more than forty percent of the wealth. Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes? If you are to be a truly Christian nation you must solve this problem. …You can use your powerful economic resources to wipe poverty from the face of the earth. God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe “enough and to spare” for that purpose. So, I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.”

After 63 years what does this message say to us today?  How does this message read to inhabitants of small towns and cities that still live in through daily discrimination?

Dr. King at the Baptist Church of Dexter, Montgomery, Alabama

This speech by Reverend King left me stunned to for its denunciation and its claim of excessive enrichment of a small group people and the moral impoverishment of so many – and it is still valid.  He conveys a Gospel of Solidarity that shows that a system of accumulation is not of God, is not fair, and even more, is not Christian.

What can we say, is that the United States can eliminate poverty with its economic might or it can continue bleeding and growing so that only some are able to enjoy wealth and privilege?  It is necessary to recognize as King did that the system in which we live has made us believe that we must have too much, insatiable, but this does not fill the void of not feeling part of a true community of faith that promotes justice for all and all, so it is time to shake and leave the dust to go ahead and make up for this great call that leaves us the message of doing good.

This powerful denunciation from Dr. King in 1956 from the pulpit of his church in Alabama is undoubtedly prophetic and courageous.  Segregation was lived not only in society but as a product of social ideologies in the churches. Religious leaders had allowed the establishment of congregations that kept that painful truth; while few congregations struggled for integration others maintained and enjoyed their “white privileges” turning their back not only to their brothers and sisters of color but also on God.

Today the issue is not necessarily integration of worship services but rather how the church at large address its role in society and the community. Recently, personal spirituality reduces the practice to attending church on Sundays, praying, singing and asking for forgiveness as only personal ways of approaching God, while what happens outside the four walls of the church is not a matter of preaching or reflection. These versions of faith prevent the believer from connecting with a wider community:

  • A view that the greatness of this country was only when a small group of people were fully franchised citizens within the republic;
  • Suffering and pain of hundreds of children separated from their families on the border with Mexico;
  • The pain of young African-Americans who are systematically targeted, arrested, and often killed by overly aggressive and militarized forms of policing; or
  • The destruction of Native lands that that are being increasingly repressed and contaminated by large corporations.

It is at this crucial moment in history that the Church must reflect and find its purpose in the context of society, the Gospel and a mission to living out the full values of Jesus Christ.  Dr. King admonishes us to view the Gospel in the fullest sense and consider the role of the church to be a beacon of light based off the ideas of love and justice. To have a real relationship with God is to have a relationship with a diverse, multilingual and inclusive community.  However, why do so many churches in the United States still refuse to accept this mandate?