The colors of integrity

Forgive me for stating the obvious when I say that Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of integrity. As a man of moral steadfastness whose riveting words were supported by bold action, the word seems fitting.

But, to draw out the point, what I mean is that he is man whose many parts were integrated*. Until recently, I had only a public school knowledge of his life. I never actually knew what it was that he did for a living. Was he a politician? A preacher? An activist? Yes…but no.

Occupationally-speaking, he was a preacher at a church in Atlanta. But while he was at it, he travelled the country to pioneer the civil rights movement. He rubbed elbows with dignitaries and pop stars. He was invited (several times) to appear at the White House. He ran fundraising campaigns. He led protest marches. His thunderous voice rang from countless stages to address the issues of the times: poverty, rights for the black community, the war in Vietnam.

Why such cross-platform involvement? Isn’t it dangerous to mix faith and politics? Yes, it most certainly is. But as we’ll soon see, there was no “mixing” in the life of Dr. King.

So why did he do it? He had to. He knew that to be a follower of the person of Jesus would cause him to be a doer of the things of Jesus. In other words, there was no distinction between the faith and the politics of Dr. King. His political actions were the outward expression of his faith.

Take a listen to the video at the top of this post. Here we have Dr. King preaching at his church, where many people would have liked to have kept him. But the subject of the sermon is Shadrach, Meeshach, and Abednego; three figures who resolved to trust and act on their faith in God, even when doing so yielded death threats and attempts from the ruling authorities. As the sermon progresses, one cannot help but see the common threads between biblical account and that of Dr. King:

These men were saying that ‘Our faith is so deep. We found something so dear and so precious that nothing can turn us away from it’…

[18:41] You may be 38 years old as I happen to be…and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand upon some great principle…You refuse to do it because you are afraid…because you want to live longer…you’re afraid that you would lose your job…be criticized…lose your popularity…that someone would stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house. So you refuse to take a stand. Well you may go on and live until you are 90 but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90…You died when you refused to stand up for right…when you refused to stand up for truth…

In this is revealed the heart of Dr. King’s mission. Just as Shadrach, Meeshach, and Abednego knew that their lives were found in standing literally and figuratively for God, so Martin Luther King knew he would only live when his life was laid down for the oppressed. Tyranny’s greatest weakness is the life of even one spent in servitude to its victims.

Too often, we attempt to dis-integrate ourselves. We would like to think that our lives are a series of boxes where each item is granted its own, unique space that is entirely separate and disconnected from the others. Our work life stays in the “work” box, our home life stays in the “home” box and so on. This is merely the recipe for living two or more separate lives. We are meant to be whole people, integrated people. To me, Dr. King is someone who allowed the contents of the boxes to be compiled into a cohesive whole. And this is exactly why we are still feeling the affects of his life so many decades after his death.

Our words and our actions will outlive us. Future generations will ride the crests of the ripples we now cast throughout the ocean of life. So it was with Martin Luther King, so it is with us, so it shall be for our children.

* I am grateful to Sarah Arthur from whom I first gained this insightful description of integrity as a character quality from her book Walking with Frodo: A Devotional Journey Through Lord of the Rings.
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