I like Martin Luther King Jr. As a teenager I had a poster of him on my bedroom wall, complete with an excerpt of his “I have a dream” speech. I read his Letters from a Birmingham Jail as a high school student and his speeches as a seminary student. The more I learn, the more I like him. I like his commitment to nonviolence and the pushy way he displayed this commitment. I like how his life serves as an example of the mystery and paradox that is at the heart of our faith. I like his imperfections as a witness to God’s willingness to use imperfect people and God’s ability to use them well.
But there is also something I don’t like: I don’t like that MLK has become revered more as a national hero than as a Christian saint and martyr. He’s been unbaptized and turned into a secular hero, washed clean of any Christian ideology or commitments. The church is losing MLK to civil religion. I don’t like this because I like MLK and I don’t like civil religion.
Civil religion is the result of imparting sacredness to a nation state – creating a kind of religious significance to the nation through rituals, symbols, sacred days, sacred places, and sacred people. It’s easy to see civil religion in the United States as we memorialize our sacred dead, build monuments to our sacred leaders and ideals, and treat with holy reverence battlefields and days when sacrifices were made on behalf of our nation.
Christians need to understand the difference between significant and sacred. National symbols can be significant, but they should not be honored as sacred.
Churches too often participate in and contribute to civil religion. We do this when we confuse our sentiment for nation with our faith in Christ. National flags and civil holidays are transformed into religious symbols and holy days when we mistakenly honor and celebrate them in our worship services and sanctuaries. But the gospel and Old Glory have nothing in common.
When we bring the nation into the church it’s all too easy for the nation to take over. And when we make a Christian martyr into a national hero, he ceases – at least in some way – to be a Christian.
Martin Luther King Jr. made our nation better, but he did so as a minister of the gospel, as a prophet of God’s desire and will for humankind, and as a witness to the distinct character of our Christian faith. The National Park Foundation highlights the efficacy of MLK’s gift of speech and his eloquent writings, but Christians would say God worked through him. Those are two very different things.
When we allow MLK to be absorbed into our nation’s civil religion, we lose sight that what he strived for was not simply a better nation, but a kingdom coming through the blood of the Risen One. We lose sight of the distinct and disturbing nature of Christ’s vision for how we are to go about living in and influencing the world.
So how should Christians honor MLK? Let me offer three humble suggestions.
First, honor and celebrate him when Christian saints are honored: on his day of martyrdom, not the day of his birth. In case you forgot, it was April 4 that the shot rang out in the Memphis sky. If you’re a pastor or otherwise have some hand in planning worship services, early April is the time of year to honor God’s goodness through the lens of MLK, his life, his ministry and his death.
Second, minister for causes of justice in our day and time in the same distinctly Christian way MLK did and do so as a Christian proclamation. Take up his mantle as a distinctly Christian one. Work to end human trafficking because God cares. Push to end racial violence because Jesus hates bigotry. Work for nonviolence because that is the way of Jesus, not because Twitter likes it.
Third, look for every opportunity to remind yourself and your fellow Americans that MLK is not first and foremost a national hero; he is a Christian martyr who gave his life to help God’s kingdom come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Tell stories of his Christian witness and his willingness to die for the cause of Christ.