Why Should Christians Celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?
The third Monday in January marks a day of great celebration in America. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man of God who helped pave the way for unity and freedom. Much like a modern-day Moses, King followed the prompting of the Lord and was a frontrunner to lead the African American people out of a time of great devastation. His mission and purpose still lives on today.
The fact that there have been times in our country and around the world when people, made in the image of God, have been abused and enslaved is sickening. No matter what the color of your skin or your culture, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a holiday well worth honoring, especially as Christians.
In 2022, MLK Day falls on January 17th. So why should Christians celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?
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A Short History of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Michael King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. History tells us, “In 1934, however, his father, a pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, traveled to Germany and became inspired by the Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther. As a result, King Sr. changed his own name as well as that of his five-year-old son.”
History goes on to say that King was very intelligent and enrolled in college at age fifteen. He skipped all of high school and attended Morehouse College. He did not plan to continue in the family line of ministry, but was encouraged by the vocational president to do so. King married Coretta Scott on June 18, 1953 and “after earning a divinity degree from Pennsylvania’s Crozer Theological Seminary, King attended graduate school at Boston University, where he received his Ph.D. degree in 1955.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was imprisoned at least 29 times in his life. Those who supported segregation desired to eliminate the progress that he was making in the name of Christ. King did a lot of work being a peaceful voice in efforts for equality. He planned peaceful protests and marches such as the March on Washington, the Memphis sanitation workers' strike, and the Montgomery bus boycott. Tragically, King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 at the young age of 39.
It breaks my heart to think of what more King could have done. The truth is that his work was left unfinished in the goal of unification and equality among the African American people in the United States. However, we can be empowered knowing that as believers, the same Holy Spirit that resided in King, resides within us today. We can be brave and ask God the questions, “How can I help? How can I show Your love to this world? How can I be a peaceful voice for equality?”
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How Martin Luther King Jr.’s Faith Impacted His Life and Work
One of the most admirable qualities of Dr. King was that even when he was imprisoned and physically attacked, he carried himself with integrity and walked in peace. He modeled Christ in the way that he approached adversity.
Dayspring shared on Crosswalk that in 1957 King preached, “Reflecting on Jesus’ commands, Dr. King said, ‘… it is significant that he does not say, ‘Like your enemy.’ There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me … but Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like.’ Clearly Dr. King was reinforcing his commitment to living the kind of life Jesus would have him live, despite difficult circumstances and opposition. Dr. King’s faith was personal. He not only believed in the truth of God’s Word, he did what the Word tells all of us to do. He took action – no matter the cost. Dr. King’s life is a lesson for us today as we remember what Galatians 3:28 tells us: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’”
I grew up and still live in the South. There are so many things that I am proud of here: southern hospitality, fried chicken, sweet tea, SEC football. However one thing that I am not proud of is the history of injustice. Every precious life that God made on this earth was created in His image.
Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Just because I do not like the history of the past, does not mean that I get to erase it – but I can learn from it. In a horrific time of unfair laws and segregation in our history, Martin Luther King Jr. stepped on the scene as a man after God’s heart, on mission to bring unity through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Britannica shares that King was a Baptist minister who led the way to nonviolent approaches in ending racial segregation. He became nationally recognized during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Everything that King did was rooted in His faith in Jesus. He started the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 and he was the front man for the March on Washington in 1963. Britannica says that King was a key player in passing the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was even awarded a Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964.
In a devastating moment, his wonderful life was taken by assassination on April 4, 1968. He is remembered with a national holiday each year on the third Monday of the month for January.
Although his work was great, the lingering effects of racism and segregation still continue in our country today. It is amazing that every African American friend whom I have made has had at least one encounter with racism or segregation in their lives. It is important that even if we have never personally experienced this kind of hate, that we can empathize as believers and have compassion.
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Racism Is a Sin Issue
I sat in a classroom with 4th and 5th graders of various races last year. We had the opportunity to read through Kings’ speech, “I Have a Dream.” As we spoke about racism and hate, it broke my heart as many of the young children who had friends of different skin colors within the classroom began to realize that had they lived in a different decade, they would be separated and likely not even be friends. In fact, they would not even be allowed to attend the same school.
We mourned together over this sadness and talked about how all people are made in the image of God. We discussed that the root of all racism is sin. We have a racism problem, because we have a sin problem. If Christians do not stand up like Martin Luther King Jr. and be the example of unity and love through Christ, then who will?
We see injustice throughout the Bible. One of the most well-known stories is that of the Israelites in Egypt found in Exodus. God delivered them from the oppression and enslavement to the promised land. God says in Exodus 2:2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
The Lord is the Deliverer from oppression. We all have been spiritually burdened by sin and death. Galatians 5:1 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Jesus came to free us all from sin. In showing equality and compassion for people from different backgrounds and cultures, we point to the greater freedom which is found in Jesus Christ.
Jesus said in Luke 4:18-19, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
There are convicting questions that we can ask believers, no matter what our skin color or race.
- Am I pointing to Jesus as the answer for freedom?
- Am I modeling Christ in the ways I interact with others?
- Am I caring for the person in front of me and seeing him or her like God does?
- Am I taking steps to build community and genuine friendship with people who look different from me?
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Churches Are Called to Unify Because the Body of Christ Involves Every Nation
Dr. Tony Evans once said, “When I heard Martin Luther King's speech, 'I Have a Dream,' I reflected on the fact that much of the success of that movement was driven by the unity of the church.”
This inspires us as the church today to remember that Jesus came for the world. God’s plan of redemption is for all the nations, that every tribe, tongue and people group would know Him (Revelation 7:9). When we ostracize and segregate, we are only fooling ourselves. We try to create an environment that looks nothing like heaven will. There will be no dividing lines or separate bathrooms in heaven; this is not the way of God, but the way of Satan. Dr. King knew this, put His faith in the Lord and took Christ-like action.
How Can We Celebrate MLK Day?
Maybe you have never celebrated this day before because it has not meant as much to you personally. However, I want to challenge people to ask questions and learn. Racism is still an issue in the United States and around the world today. It is important that we educate ourselves and honor those who deserve to be honored in the faith.
1. Take time to read one of the books written by Martin Luther King Jr. himself. (Letters from a Birmingham Jail or Why We Can’t Wait)
2. Talk to others who have experienced racism about their encounters, and genuinely learn from them. Be a listener.
3. Watch or read the “I Have a Dream” speech.
4. March in a peaceful parade.
5. Read Scripture verses that address racism.
6. Pray. Do this alone or try to get a group together to pray for unity in the church and in our nation.
7. Brainstorm ways that your local church can be more unifying and create an action plan for the year.
9. Check out Pastor Tony Evans’ material on unity in the church such as Let’s Get to Know Each Other
Racism is still a problem because sin exists. We do not need to be a part of the problem, but as believers we should point people to the solution of Christ. We can mirror Christ in how we care. As we ask the Lord to help us love well and be the example to the world, may we know our efforts for understanding and unity are not wasted.
Psalm 89:14 says it well, "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; Mercy and truth go before Your face.”
This MLK Day, may we honor a man well worth our respect who led the way with Jesus and did what was right. His mission of unity continues with us, the people of God.
For further reading
How to Be the Bridge: Practical Steps to Racial Reconciliation
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