Martin Luther King on Sabbath and Sacrifice

Photo by Chris Tank
Photo by Chris Tank

On April 7th, 1968, Nina Simone, one of the most stunning voices and personas in the history of blues music, sang a concert at the Westbury Music Festival in New York. Nina sang the concert broken-hearted, questioning, and on the brink of hopelessness. Three days before, her friend and leader in the civil rights movement in the United States, Martin Luther King Jr., had been murdered in Memphis. The concert was on a Sunday.
Simone dedicated the concert to King, and she sang two songs in his honour. The first was an angry elegy, one that would predict the rest of her career. In it, she cried out in full lament of the condition of the black community and she predicted that violence was coming; the “King of Love”, as she called him, was dead. It is an achingly frightening song, prophetic of our times, incisive, and painfully clear.
The other song was very different. It was a sultry, peaceful song about Sunday in Savannah. The concert was on Sunday after all, and Sunday, the Sabbath, was the day when King was always off the streets and in the pulpit. It was the day when the community was called to confess their sins, find inspiration, consolation, and rest, both in the churches and on their hot front porches afterward. Simone knew, despite her anger, that her friend King disagreed with her about violence and hope, and she knew that this had everything to do with where he spent his Sundays and what he believed. King did not believe he was the King of Love, but rather, he trusted in another. Despite her own fears, she honoured him and sang a song about Sunday, a song about rest.
Whenever King ascended the pulpit in his home church, he stood beneath a coloured glass depicting the agony at Gethsemane. Below it was a neon cross, around him were choirs and elders, and before him was the word. King’s biographer, Richard Lischer, says that this sanctuary where King preached symbolized the world in which King inhabited with his congregation. His world consisted of two dialectically opposed realities. The first was the heritage of suffering, which included enslavement, poverty, segregation, murder, and all the hopelessness inherent in this heritage. The second was the affirmation of God’s purpose for the whole world, especially for those who bear burdens imposed by others.
King believed that God’s purpose takes the form of a divinely ruled order that will ultimately triumph over the chaos of suffering. Every Sunday, he brought those realities together in his person and in his pulpit. He brought his work as an offering and rested in the word and the congregation, beneath the cross and the picture of Gethsemane (Lischer, 1995).
Photo by Chris Tank
Photo by Chris Tank

There are multitudes of audio recordings of King’s ministry in his home church.  In them, he tells of the terrors of his week and asks his congregation for prayer before offering thanks to God for allowing him to come home one more Sunday… the preaching ends, the singing begins, and then he bellows praise at the top of his lungs.
The world seems to be saturated with darkness, and we often wonder what difference our worship makes. But when we come to worship, bringing the offering of our being and our goods to the altar, we change the nature of the way we understand our lives. Worship is not just something we do as part of our lives; it is how we frame our lives. We go to church on this day, reserved for this act, to be completed by the one who holds all of our lives and the life of the world within his graceWe do this in order thatour work may find worth and hope though its participation in the whole of God’s work.
When we approach our work this way, whatever it is, it becomes a gift to God, and therefore a gift to the world. To do this is to trust that God takes our offerings and transforms them into a contribution to the common good of our fellow creatures.
The non-violence of Martin Luther King Jr. was rooted in Sabbath rest. He knew the one who was to act, the only one who could save his people. As Lischer powerfully notes, one doesn’t sit down at a segregated lunch counter or face fire hoses and dogs because such action makes sense or is guaranteed; it is only because there is a greater logic at play. What civil rights activist and politician Walter Fauntroy says of Rosa Parks could be also said of King: “When [she] sat down in the front of the bus, she was making a statement as to whether or not God could be trusted” (Lischer, 1995).
It is said of King that the more pessimistic he grew with regard to humanity, the more optimistic he became about God. Even in the darkest period of his own discouragement, he continues to say to African Americans, “Go ahead! God can be trusted” (Lischer, 1995). Trust in God comes from rest in God.
Sunday is for worship and for rest. We bring our whole lives before him, all our work, all our hopes and plans, and then we must go and lay about, nap and reflect. This part is also fundamental to the Sabbath. No matter how pressed and busy we are, we need this moment of worship and then rest to make sense of our lives. In this balance of the week, we learn to listen to the judgement of God in our lives and we learn the grace of God to carry us.
Kirsten Pinto Gfroerer is the Lay Pastoral Associate at St. Margaret’s, Winnipeg.kpg

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