My birthday is approaching, so I know that soon it will be Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr Day in America and (in the case of a post-election year) a US President will be inaugurated. In honour of all three events occurring this year, I want to consider Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s understanding of greatness. In particular, according to Rev King, what precisely would make America great? I am going to consider the views he expressed in two sermons: The Drum Major Instinct (4th February 1968) and Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution (31st March 1968).
Discussing Mark 10:35-45 in his sermon The Drum Major Instinct, Rev King identifies the human desire to be “great” – this desire to “be out in front, to lead the parade, to be first” – to be the drum major that leads everyone else. And Rev King says that the problem is not the desire in itself. In Mark 10, Jesus doesn’t tell James and John off for seeking to sit next to him in the kingdom. There is no “get behind me Satan” moment here. Rather, Jesus explains to them that they don’t really know what they are asking, but also that in God’s kingdom (i.e. when things happen God’s way), things will be done differently. The power games on earth are not how God does power in the heavens. So in that sense, seeking greatness is not the problem. It’s great to want to be great!
Rev King says that the problem is when we live out the desire to be great at the exclusion and expense of others. When we want to sit next to Jesus so bad that we don’t care or give a thought to where others will be sitting. If the drum major instinct is “unharnessed”, it is dangerous for us as individuals as we can become obsessed with boasting or lying or joining exclusive clubs – just so we can try to get ahead in life. He says this unharnessed instinct can lead to “snobbish exclusivism” which has no place within the church – or indeed within God’s vision for His creation.
Rev King emphasises the “whosoever will” and says “any church that violates the doctrine of “the whosoever will, let him come” is a dead, cold church. When the church is true to its nature, it says “whosoever will, let him come.” Jesus designed His body (the church) to be a place different from everywhere else, a place where people can expect to be loved (that’s how people will know we are Jesus’ disciples).
Greatness in God’s book (according to scripture) looks like:
- Bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)
- Counting others as more significant than yourselves (Philippians 2:3)
- Being so great at being great that you go out of your way to help others see how important they are to the church, the community, the city, the nation, and to God (Romans 12:10)
- Being in such a close relationship with Jesus that you are “drinking from the same cup” and “baptised with the same baptism” (Mark 10:39)
So wanting to be great isn’t the problem. But if we want God’s help in being great, it would help to keep in mind how God views greatness. Remembering that Jesus’ greatest moments involved a crucifixion and an empty tomb.
The Greatness Revolution
Discussing Revelation 16 and 21 in his sermon Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, Rev King emphasises two ideas:
- Staying awake during God’s greatness revolution (Revelation 16:15)
- God Makes Creation Great Again (Revelation 21:5)
Rev King starts with the American story Rip Van Winkle, the man who did not just sleep for twenty years, but actually slept through the American Revolution! Rev King saw 1960s as a new moment of revolutionary change and urged people to stay awake! Rev King identified key changes in technology, weaponry and human rights. He then identified the challenges that these changes bring:
- Developing a world perspective: “We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.”
- Eradicating racism: Sunday morning worship is “the most segregated hour of America”.
- Eradicating poverty: “Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation.”
Rev King here discussed the parable found in Luke 16:19-31. Jesus taught his disciples the danger of ignoring the suffering of the poor. He also taught them that despite the teaching of the prophets and of Moses, that even if someone came back from the dead to warn them, some people would still ignore the suffering of the poor. Rev King explains that the rich man didn’t realise “that his wealth was his opportunity” to make a difference in the poor man’s life. Rev King’s challenge to the nation of America was to use its wealth and ingenuity to “bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots”. He preached that the struggle of the poor was also the struggle of the rich, just as the poor man’s struggle in life became the rich man’s struggle in eternal life. Their lives in the parable are connected.
- War: “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.”
Although the details may have changed (ie America is not still fighting a war in Vietnam), America still faces these challenges. Americans disagree on the importance of these challenges and cannot agree a vision for how these challenges might be dealt with.
Rev King’s vision for America was for it to live out its creeds. He often preached this message: America, do what you say you will do on the tin! (my paraphrase)
America’s Declaration of Independence was written on 4th July 1776 (America’s Independence Day), and it was a letter sent from the Continental Congress to King George III. In it, the founding fathers of the United States of America asserted: “We hold 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.”
Rev King’s hope and determination was “to make America the truly great America that it is called to be.” A place where the “self-evident” truths are lived out – for “all men” regardless of ethnicity or economic status – where all people can expect the “unalienable rights” given by God to be lived out.
America will be great when it lives out its dream that it dared dream back in 1776.
A dream very much like the one Rev King spoke about on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Rev King urges us to stay awake, to see what God is doing and to get involved. God is making America great, but God’s idea of greatness may not be what we expect.
“Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).