Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter to America
This Sunday I am preaching a sermon entitled “What Would MLK Say to Us Today?” It is fitting that the MLK holiday occurs in January during the church season of Epiphany, because during this season when we seek new understandings of ourselves, our beliefs and our God, the words of this American prophet are a rich source of inspiration and enlightenment. There is no way of knowing, of course, what exactly King would say to us today; people change just as society changes. Nonetheless, I believe that it is safe to assume that many of King’s principles and perspectives would not change, because the problems Americans face as a nation, along with those faced specifically by American Christians, remain depressingly similar to the problems faced during King’s time.
In a sermon King preached entitled “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” the Civil Rights leader reads an imaginary letter from the first century apostle written to twentieth century American believers. Much of what King wrote under the guise of Paul remains just as relevant today as it was then. Segregation is no longer the same issue today, in terms of government enforcement of it, that it was then, but cultural segregation between different ethnicities remains a potent force in our society. Similarly, I would argue that issues of poverty, class and the use of our nation’s military power have seen remarkably little progress since King wrote his words in Paul’s name.
As we look towards Sunday, here’s a taste of what King had to say in that sermon where he spoke in the name of Paul the Apostle:
Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to you who are in America, grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, though our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
For many years I have longed to see you…News has come to me regarding the fascinating and astounding advances that you have made in the scientific realm…But, America, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress…Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but you have failed to employ your moral and spiritual genius to make of it a brotherhood…I must say to you what I wrote to the Roman Christians years ago: “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” You have a duel citizenry…Your highest loyalty is to God, and not to the mores or the folkways, the state or the nation, or any man-made institution.
I understand that you have an economic system in America known as capitalism, through which you have accomplished wonders. You have become the richest nation in the world, and you have built the greatest system of production that history has ever known...But, Americans, there is the danger that you will misuse your capitalism. ..I am afraid that many among you are more concerned in making money than in accumulating spiritual treasures. The misuse of capitalism may also lead to tragic exploitation. This has so often happened in your nation. I am told that one tenth of 1 percent of the population controls more than 40 percent of the wealth. America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses and given luxuries to the classes…You must use your powerful economic resources to eliminate poverty from the earth. God never intended one people to live in superfluous and inordinate wealth, while others know only devastating poverty...
A thing that disturbs me about the American church is that you have a white church and a Negro church. How can segregation exist in the true Body of Christ? I am told that there is more integration within the entertaining world and other secular agencies than there is in the Christian church. How appalling this is...I hope the churches of America will play a significant role in conquering segregation. It has always been the responsibility of the church to broaden horizons and challenge the status quo. The church must move out into the arena of social action. First, you must see that the church removes the yoke of segregation from its own body. Then you must seek to make the church increasingly active in social action outside its doors. It must seek to keep channels of communications open between the races. It must take an active stand against the injustices which Negroes confront in housing, education, police protection, and in city and state courts. It must exert its influence in the area of economic justice. As guardian of the moral and spiritual life of the community the church cannot look with indifference upon these glaring evils. If you as Christians will accept the challenge with devotion and valor, you will lead the misguided men of your nation from the darkness of falsehood and fear to the light of truth and love.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” in Strength to Love (Philadephia: Fortress Press, 1981), 137-145.
Grace and Peace,