It’s a story you won’t hear anywhere this week as the life of Martin Luther King is celebrated: the story of the battle for the soul of a nation between King and his rival, Malcolm X. It was a battle between a Baptist preacher and a Nation of Islam disciple.
And if you listen carefully, what you’ll hear is deafening silence about the one element of King’s life without which none of his efforts would have been possible: his devotion to his faith and his God — his devotion to Jesus Christ.
“To most Christians, the Bible is like a software license,” Bill Maher once explained. “Nobody actually reads it. They just scroll down to the bottom and click, ‘I agree.'”
Rev. Martin Luther King thought differently. Indeed, he found the Bible so compelling that his undergraduate degree was in Bible studies and his Ph.D. was in theology. To King, the Bible wasn’t a software license. It was software code — a deep, mysterious code authored by God for man’s eternal soul.
“Leaving God out of Martin Luther King’s life,” a friend once told me, “is like leaving naked young women out of Hugh Hefner’s. It’s like leaving the story of segregation out of Jackie Robinson’s.”
But that won’t stop the media from redacting any and all references to the source of King’s inspiration. You’ll hear endless references to Dr. Martin Luther King all this week ahead — but never to Reverend King. The clips you’ll hear and the videos you’ll see will be King’s stirring secular rhetoric. What you will not hear are the parts of the speeches filled with references to God. Or the book from which sprang the source of this man’s devotion to justice: the Bible.
You won’t hear any mention of this in the media this week. That’s how deep the antipathy toward all things Christian runs.
You won’t hear a single word from King’s remarkable speech “A Knock at Midnight,” a speech any four-year-old can find on Google. King started the speech with a quote from Luke 11:5–6: “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’?”
He then leapt right into the speech:
“Although this parable is concerned with the power of persistent prayer, it may also serve as a basis for our thought concerning many contemporary problems and the role of the church in grappling with them. It is midnight in the parable; it is also midnight in our world, and the darkness is so deep that we can hardly see which way to turn. It is midnight within the social order.”
King then spent a short time talking about the miracles of modern science, but noted that even the greatest scientific theorem can’t solve the moral and spiritual problems of the modern age. He then proceeded to deliver a blistering critique of moral relativism:
“Moral principles have lost their distinctiveness. For modern man, absolute right and wrong are a matter of what the majority is doing. Right and wrong are relative to likes and dislikes and the customs of a particular community. We have unconsciously applied Einstein’s theory of relativity, which properly described the physical universe, to the moral and ethical realm … This mentality has brought a tragic breakdown of moral standards, and the midnight of moral degeneration deepens.”
King didn’t leave the church unscathed in this speech.
“When the man in the parable knocked on his friend’s door and asked for the three loaves of bread, he received the impatient retort, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ How often have men experienced a similar disappointment when at midnight they knock on the door of the church?”
King was referring to the white churches in the South that did little to correct the injustice of racial segregation. But in the end, King understood that sin — and man coming up short of the calling of God — was not new. It’s as old as the Old Testament.
And King knew that real hope and change can only be found through God’s love. Here’s how he closed that speech:
“The dawn will come. Disappointment, sorrow, and despair are born at midnight, but morning follows. ‘Weeping may endure for a night,’ says the Psalmist, ‘but joy cometh in the morning.’ This faith adjourns the assemblies of hopelessness and brings new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.”
I’d bet the family farm, if I owned one, that you won’t hear a word of that speech this week — or read a word from perhaps his most well-known piece of writing, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
“We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”
Under what circumstances, King asked the readers, is it permissible for a man of God to violate man’s laws? To answer that question, King turned to a higher power:
“How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”
In the week ahead, you will hear endless comments about King’s courage, but he was courageous because he was faithful. He was great because he was godly. That’s what made him so dangerous to segregationists. And that’s why totalitarians in every era always go after believers first. They fear the power of God’s love most of all.
It was love at the center of King’s message. He always preached nonviolence, and always carried himself with dignity no matter the circumstances, and he did so because his God commanded it. He commanded that King love his neighbor as himself — all of his neighbors, not just those who treated him well.
Not everyone agreed with King’s Christian approach. A young African-American Muslim named Malcolm X had a very different vision. A brilliant public speaker, Malcolm was a member of the Nation of Islam. He believed King’s talk of love and mercy was weak, and often accused King of being an “Uncle Tom.”
In a speech in Detroit in 1963 called “Message to the Grass Roots,” he said this of King and his Christian followers:
“The same old slave master today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, 20th-century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent. That’s Tom making you nonviolent.”
A bit later in the speech, he attacked King’s nonviolent, Christian approach — and called for open rebellion:
“A revolution is bloody. Revolution is hostile. Revolution knows no compromise. Revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way. And you sit around here like a knot on a wall saying, ‘I’m going to love these folks no matter how much they hate me.’ No, you need a revolution.”
Malcolm wasn’t finished. He then went on to mock King:
“Whoever heard a revolution where they lock arms … singing ‘We Shall Overcome’? Just tell me. You don’t do that in a revolution. You don’t do any singing; you’re too busy swinging.”
What a story it would be for the media to tell, the two competing visions for the heart and soul of America: Martin’s vs. Malcolm’s. Luckily for all of us, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision prevailed, and Malcolm X’s failed.
You likely won’t hear any of this on television or the radio today or the rest of this week. The media will ignore all of King’s God talk — the God he loved to talk about right up until his tragic death.
The night before he was killed in April of 1968, he gave a speech at a church in Memphis that included over a dozen references to the Bible. It was a prophetic speech, as if the 39-year-old somehow knew his life would soon be cut short:
“And so 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!”