Many things will be written today about Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, and the need for continued progress. We as a society still have room to grow when it comes to justice and reconciliation between all people, not just those with different colors of skin, but also between cultures, nationalities, and religions. We for some reason tend to distrust those who are different from us, and keep “the different” at a distance. This tendency to keep others at a distance is not of God, and must be confronted and changed by those who follow Jesus. This confrontation is not an easy process, as King discovered. Confrontation, even non-violent confrontation, is difficult and places one in danger. Individuals don’t like to change, and King was eventually assassinated because he wouldn’t stop confronting a society that was misguided and wrong. Yet, to the end, he never gave up hope. He believed that change would come, even if he wouldn’t witness the change himself.
His final speech is one of his most famous. It was delivered in Memphis, TN the night before his assassination. It is,ironically, very prophetic. Although not even forty years old, King had been leading the Civil Rights movement for over a dozen years, and it was taking its toll on him. He was tired, and pictures show that he had aged considerably because of the strain and stress. But he did not lose hope. King believed that the cause would be victorious because the cause was right. The last paragraph of his final public speech contains these words.
“Well I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop….Like anyone, I want to live a long life….But I’m not concerned with that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up on to the mountaintop. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The power in the speech comes from the hope that King displays. King references the story of Moses and the Israelites as they left Egyptian slavery for the promised land. Though it takes some time, the Israelites make it to the promised land because God is with them. God made a promise, and God will fulfill the promise.
This is the moment where King’s faith and hope become so important. King believes that reconciliation is part of the new creation. The reason segregation is wrong is because we are all made in God’s image and thus equal. Although sin leads humanity to devalue others and separate into groups, one of the great promises through the prophets is that in the new creation all of humanity will be brought back into proper relationship; not just with God, but with each other. The lion and lamb will lie down together. King believes that through the life of Jesus, God’s kingdom has broken in, the new has invaded the old, and even though at the present time it may appear the old is winning (the world of sin and death) God will be victorious. The new will triumph. God’s reign will come and the will of the Father will be on earth just as it is in heaven. King believes in this truth so much, that even when he looks around him and sees racism and hatred he can confidently say we will reach the promised land because racial reconciliation is an aspect of the new creation and the new creation will come.
Almost fifty years after King’s death, it’s easy to wonder if anything has changed. There are times when it appears that racism and hatred are just as rampant as they were during the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, like King, we can still boldly proclaim that someday reconciliation will come. We can proclaim this because of our hope in God’s power to bring about the new creation. Someday, God will bring about the new creation, and reconciliation will happen. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. May we not lose hope. May we strive to ever more faithfully live into that new reality. And may we boldly pray and live the prayer “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
“Well I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop….And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land….I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”