EDITOR’S NOTE: An audio version of this column, including an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s historic “mountaintop” speech, is available here.
RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Martin Luther King Jr. died 40 years ago this spring, taking a bullet to the head because he had the courage to stand for an absolute: the God-given right of all people, regardless of color or background, to be treated with equality and dignity.
A century after the Civil War, that ideal still had not become reality in the America of April 1968. But King staked his life on the belief that it would come one day. The night before he died, he seemed to sense his own end was close at hand. He talked about the Good Samaritan who stopped on the dangerous Jericho road to help an injured stranger after a priest and a Levite had hurried by because of fear or indifference. He spoke of the long years of struggle for civil rights, of his own survival of a knife attack years before, of the ongoing threats on his life.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” King admitted that night as he spoke to supporters. “But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
His imagery was biblical, as it always had been. Not just because King was a Baptist preacher and the son of a Baptist preacher, but because his deepest convictions about what was right, wrong, true and false came from the Bible. Neither his education, nor his Nobel Prize -– nor even his rise from local pastor to history-changing world leader -– altered his reliance on the Word of God as the ultimate source of truth. He was challenging Americans, including the church, to live up to what they claimed to believe.
He had issued the call five years before in his “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
King was quoting the Declaration itself, whose signers held “these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Following a bill of particulars against a tyrannical monarch, they ended the document with this promise: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Like King, the signers knew they were putting their lives on the line for something they regarded as God-given, absolute and non-negotiable. They relied on God and each other to face the challenges to come. As Ben Franklin put it, “We must hang together, or we will surely hang separately.”
Distinguished company, wouldn’t you agree? Today, however, Truth with a capital “T” has a bad reputation in polite society. People willing to die for a cause –- or even proclaim it with passion – are regarded as nuts, fanatics or extremists.
The rejection of absolutes isn’t just the province of relativists, postmodernists, secularists and other “-ists.” A lot of good, reasonable people, religious and otherwise, get nervous when someone claims to know the whole truth about anything. It’s hard to blame them, in light of the crimes committed in the name of Truth by a long line of inquisitors, crusaders, false prophets, communists, Nazis, totalitarians -– and now jihadists.
Writer George Orwell, who warned the world about the bloodthirsty nature of modern absolutism in his classics “1984” and “Animal Farm,” said that ideology drives men “who think in slogans and talk in bullets.” Whoever opposes them is likely to end up in a gulag or a gas chamber.
Ironically, the intelligentsia is especially susceptible to absolutist ideologies –- as long as those ideologies reject God –- despite the fact that intellectuals are usually among the first to face firing squads when totalitarians take power. Since the Enlightenment, the supposedly enlightened have relentlessly attacked Christianity as superstition and a tool of oppressors. Yet all they have to offer in its place is the counterfeit ideal of man-made utopia, which has failed repeatedly and utterly, or the mushy relativism that now pervades popular culture.
How do they explain a man like Martin Luther King Jr., a brave preacher who changed history by challenging people, from an explicitly Christian perspective, to pursue justice and righteousness by nonviolent means? They don’t –- and can’t. He doesn’t fit into their worldview.
Without certain God-given absolutes, societies quickly descend into moral chaos as every man does what is right in his own eyes. The rejection of biblical truth has nearly destroyed Western culture. But Jesus Christ still stands at the door, declaring with love but without compromise: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
That statement, the foundation of Christian faith, missions and evangelism, is either true or false. There is no middle ground.
Erich Bridges is senior writer for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.