Martin Luther King Jnr - The Power Of Promise Over Rejection
As we mark the death and remember the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr., it does us good to ask what it was about him that has made his legacy so enduring.
This son and grandson of Baptist ministers became the pastor of a local church, little dreaming in his early pastoral days that he would soon be leading a movement of black Christian leaders - and later people of all races - who would inspire radical change to America's long-standing racial divide.
Most people think of King as a great activist, a campaigner for human rights. However, he was, by his own admission, first and foremost a man of God, a minister of the Christian gospel.
His faith was his core: it motivated everything he did and featured prominently in most of his most famous speeches (many of which were given in churches).
This fact was highlighted again in a recent BBC documentary presented by former British politician Oona King, whose father and uncle met and worked alongside Dr. King (no relation).
A professed atheist herself, Ms King made a clear case for remembering the faith element in the life and work of Dr. King. She was obviously moved, and a little surprised, to discover just how deeply his faith affected his stance on issues.
Forty years after his tragic and untimely death, we celebrate King's life because he was an agent of reconciliation. He fought the power of rejection on many fronts in society; not just in the racial arena, but with economic inequalities as well. Later in his short life, he became a powerful voice for change in the gap between the rich and poor in his homeland.
Rejection is a subject we can all relate to, whatever our age or circumstances. We've all known, somewhere in our lives, the pain of being the last one chosen for the sport's team, or the last one approached for conversation at a party.
People tend to deal with rejection in one of three ways. Some will fake a response; preferring to hide behind an image of nonchalance , of being impervious to rejection, than dealing with the pain they feel - and its causes.
This is one of the great dangers of our post-modern preoccupation with celebrity, especially as it touches on our young people. Celebrity is built largely on image, and image can be dangerous. How many of our pop-culture heroes have suffered emotionally, and been stunted in their personal growth, because of the pressure of keeping up an image.
LIFE magazine said in its final comment on the life of Elvis Presley: 'In the end, not even Elvis could be Elvis any more.' They wondered aloud whether Elvis deliberately took that lethal cocktail of drugs before his death. It wouldn't be the first time that the pressure of keeping up with a popular image, usually one built up in the public mind when they were very young, has contributed to depression among celebrities. Kurt Cobaine is another example that springs to mind.
Some people, facing rejection, will lie down and take it. Rather than fight back, they will simply accept that this is the way things are for them, that there's nothing to be done about it.
Like the young girl I met on a mission to Belfast in the mid-90s, during the Troubles. From the Catholic, or nationalist, side of the tracks, she told me how her father and uncle had been gunned down in the street for no other reason than that they were Catholic.
I asked her how she felt about it. She said: 'It makes me so angry. Sometimes I just want to get even with those murderers.'
'But then I realise, that's just the way things are in my life. There's nothing I can do to change any of it. It's always going to be like this.'
My heart broke for this girl; to be so young, and so resigned to a life of heartache.
In the end, rejection has to be faced and brought down - whether between groups of people, or individuals.
On an individual basis, as a Christian, I have seen literally thousands of people change over time as they've started to believe the things God says about them in the Bible.
As they start to appropriate the promises the scriptures make for themselves, their concept of self changes completely, to the point where the rejection that previously threatened their entire self-worth now seems smaller in comparison with a divine purpose and love that is so much greater.
Martin Luther King Jnr. applied that same power of prophetic promise over an entire society. He understood that promise is far more powerful than the threat of rejection; particularly promise that is based in a prophetic vision of the future that springs from revelation.
King's speeches, now so loved around the world, are filled with references to Old Testament prophecy and God's preferred vision for his world.
We can each learn to place divine promises at the core of our vision, both for ourselves and for our communities. In that way, like King, we can face down the powers of rejection and slowly - sometimes at personal cost - bring them down, birthing a better tomorrow.
Copyright Mal Fletcher 2008