The Conscience and the State

January 20, 2020

The wind howled and banged against the shutters, but the people inside didn't care. Despite the rain and thunder, the crowd just kept growing. One by one, they'd file in, taking off their dripping coats and finding a seat in the pews, more anxious about the other storm brewing in America than this one. It was April 3, 1968 in Memphis. And no one knew that the man they'd come to see -- Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- was about to give the last speech of his life.

This one was different, people would say later. The ministers who'd heard him preach for years were convinced he'd never talked with so much passion. Close to tears at some points, and at other times unsteady, he imagined a world where God gave him the choice, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" Rev. King let his mind wander through the Old Testament, the philosophers, the Renaissance. He would watch the other Martin Luther tack his 95 theses on the door at Wittenberg -- or Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves. "But I wouldn't stop there," he said. "Strangely enough," King looked out into the crowd, "I would turn to the Almighty and say, 'If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.'"

Dr. King knew it sounded odd. "The world," he admitted, "is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in all the land and confusion all around. But I know," he explained, "...that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding--something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up." He was called to his time, and he knew it.

It was not an ordinary night, pastors who were there have written. But then, Dr. King was no ordinary man. He'd looked injustice in the face and decided it was a cause worth fighting for -- even dying for. It was a lesson, he made clear to everyone who would listen, he learned in the church. To him, religion wasn't a barrier to progress -- it was a bridge. It didn't divide and destroy, it served and connected. So when he looked out in the crowd that night, it's no wonder he called the assembly of God's leaders "beautiful." "Who is it," he asked, "that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher?"

As far as Rev. King was concerned, the body of Christ was the most important institution in this country for social action. He not only preached it, but he was one of the leaders who was also willing to go outside of the four walls of the church to demonstrate it. "The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority."

FRC's Dean Nelson, our senior fellow for African-American Affairs, points out that King first wrote that sitting in a Birmingham jail. At its core, Dean points out, it was "a call to motivate clergy who were still standing on the sidelines. Clergy who felt like, 'Well, we don't want to get involved' -- both black and white." After all, Dean explains, "It wasn't just whites in the South who said, 'Well, we don't really need to push this issue.' There were blacks that were satisfied with the status quo."

And we see that same indifference or fear in the church today. One of his most powerful messages, "A Knock at Midnight," talks about the dark hour of the culture -- and how desperately America needs a faithful remnant to stand. Those words, Dean argues, ring just as true now as ever. "If there was ever a time that the church needed to recapture that prophetic zeal and speak truth to the culture, it's today, without a doubt." According to the biblical standard, he said, "and the values that we know have made America great -- regardless of whether [you're] white, black, or Hispanic -- we have to stand for those values." And right now may be "the greatest opportunity for the church to come together with one voice." We won't always have a president in the White House committed to protecting religious freedom and principles we hold dear. In him, we have an unlikely champion. But time is short.

So, as Rev. King said, looking out at the church on his last night on earth: "Let us rise up with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation." May we, in his memory, take it.