The legacy of Martin Luther King and the book of Revelation
I continue to be baffled by how often people engage in allegedly in-depth Bible study of Revelation without ever engaging a single actual theme from Revelation. Surely the book’s centerpiece is the idea of witness. Jesus Christ is presented first and foremost as the faithful witness as the lamb of God. But then other witnesses appear that are faithful to Jesus Himself, beginning with a man named Antipas. Revelation 11, the theological cornerstone of the book, tells the story of the two witnesses (which I believe to be representative of the entire Church, as I contended at length this weekend). Those witnesses are killed by the beast, but like the Lamb Himself, overcome through their own death—as that means they are also participating in the resurrection of Jesus.
That message becomes more explicit from Revelation 12-22, that God’s people conquer precisely when they seem to be overcome by the beast, by their own faithful witness in martyrdom. They “follow the Lamb wherever He goes,” which means ultimately they must overcome the evil one by the blood of the lamb, the word of their testimony—loving not their own lives even unto death. They too will find their victory over the violence and terror of the world by embracing the cross.
Clearly, Martin Luther King’s story embodies this story—and demonstrates in vivid colors how it is God can overcome principalities and powers through sacrifice and death rather than human might. On this side of that story, it is easy to acknowledge the heroism of the tale. But the thing that struck me as I toured in National Civil Rights Museum was how King’s legacy was being shaped prior to his assassination. Beyond the radical hatred of white supremacy groups, it’s remarkable how much ill will King was stirring up prior to his death across most all demographics. While in contrast to figures like Malcolm X, King’s rhetoric was always considerably softer and his methods always non-violent, his witness at the time was not just controversial to fringe groups. Specifically, his outspoken criticism of the Vietnam War and of economic injustice in the African American community bought him many critics.
In our culture, there is a certain amount of room for prophetic voices. But the two areas where people have always drawn a line when it comes to prophetic speech are their wars and their money. As Chris Hedges narrates so potently in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, almost all countries and people groups derive their collective sense of identity through the myths they conjure from their wars. There is no religious icon, no cross or temple or communion table, as sacred to people as the history they have weaved through their battles. Today, there are few people who would have any problem in retrospect with anybody questioning the Vietnam War, but not so in King’s own day.
And we are of course even more protective of what we do with our checkbooks than what we do in the bedroom. The more I read Revelation, the more I understand why we need systems to keep us away from the immediacy of its message. If Babylon is only a distant yet to come pagan empire or a long forgotten 1st century depiction of Rome, then we are able to remain safe from Revelation’s blistering economic critique. Those who are enslaved to the pursuit of riches are either ahead of us or behind us. Revelation could be about the already or the not-yet, as long as it is not about the present.
Despite the frequent accusations of being a communist or a socialist or worse, King was never poor himself and did not advocate a society in which personal wealth was impossible. But he identified deeply with the poor, and certainly saw the pursuit of economic justice to be a vital part of his own biblical witness. As even a cursory reading of the Old Testament prophets would indicate, God’s critique of how the wealthy exploit the poor and the call to rectify those practices is ever present. This message is a hallmark of the prophetic office.
I’ve wondered in recent days if King would have ever really been considered a hero if he had not been killed, at least in the mainstream. The guilt of middle class white America was charged after his death among those who would have largely disputed the truth of anything King actually taught. I have some perspective on this because of my relationship with Margaret Gaines, who, as an aging missionary, is greatly honored as an icon but not necessarily listened to. We like the idea of prophets far more than anything they actually say to us. And of course in the Church in North America, we have not only bought into but propagated the idea that Jesus is Lord only in some spiritual way, and don’t assume the Lordship of Jesus makes any claims on the “real” world to begin with.
I am happy to be inspired by saints and martyrs, and much less enthusiastic about following their actual example. And yet a week later, I find myself not just inspired by King but troubled. If King would have not died, would his ideas have ever been taken seriously? Is there still an unwritten rule that there are certain topics that preachers just aren’t allowed to talk about in our culture, no matter how much they are stirred up by the Word and by the Spirit? Will bearing faithful witness ultimately mean that the day will come for me to speak into things that will mean turning people I love against me? Is it possible to speak prophetically and be received in your own time?
By no means am I inclined to find ways to offer my life arbitrarily out of some sort of martyr complex. That would be irresponsible. I know these are answers I don’t have clear answers for, but as it was for Mary, they are things I “ponder in my heart.” As experiences like these are never coincidental for me, I presume I’ll have what answers I need when the moment is right. I know that whatever it does mean or will mean for me to be considered a faithful witness, that is what I’m after—and King has inspired me all over again in my pursuit.