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Martin Luther King:
Biblical Roots of His Vision
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Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.
King's Vision of Justice: Rooted in the Bible
By David J. Lull
As we celebrate the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we
remember how important the Bible was to him, and how deeply his
vision of racial justice
is rooted in the Judeo-Christian heritage. It was the Bible that led him to choose the
more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest over hatred, despair and violence.
Dr. King often pointed out that it was Jesus' Sermon on the Mount that
inspired the "dignified social action" of the civil rights movement. His notion
of "creative suffering"
– borne by civil rights activists who endured
persecution and police brutality
– came from his Christian faith in the redemptive
suffering of Jesus.
Dr. King dreamed of a day when America lives up to its creed, when all
people sit together at one table, and when freedom and justice reign. His famous "I
have a dream" speech reaches its highest point with echoes of the prophet Isaiah:
"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain
shall be made low ... and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see
In words of the prophet Micah, he hoped that one day all persons
elected to public office will "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with
[their] God." His hope for an end to war was rooted in Isaiah's vision that people
will "beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks."
Biblical promises of "peace on earth and goodwill toward all" were Dr. King's
antidote to despair.
To critics who accused him of being an extremist, Dr. King said that he
stood in a long line of extremists, including the prophet Amos, Jesus, the apostle Paul,
the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. For Dr. King,
the question was what kind of extremists we will be
– extremists for hate or for love,
for injustice or for justice, for evil or for goodness.
Dr. King's commitment to the Bible as his primary source book was
nourished in his childhood when Bible stories told around the dinner table held the King
children in awe. Those stories sustained him until the end of his life.
In what was to be his last speech, Dr. King drew from the biblical
story of Moses: "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life ... 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
David J. Lull wrote "King's
Vision of Justice: Rooted in the Bible" while serving as director of the NCC Bible
Translation and Utilization Program. He now serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament
at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa.