Last year was the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. For theology nerds and Reformation history junkies, it was the event of a lifetime. Hundreds of Reformational conferences were hosted and dozens of new books were written. It was tantamount to a religious Super Bowl for Protestants.
Like many churches across the world, Cornerstone Presbyterian Church memorialized the occasion in a variety of ways, including a special sermon series, a midweek lecture series, and even a Reformational concert. In all our many remembrances, you could always bank on one thing—that the German reformer, Martin Luther, would get a shout out. It’s right, of course, that Luther would be given such prominence, for it’s difficult to imagine how the Protestant Reformation could have made such wide reaching and lasting impact without Luther’s strength of passion and resolve leading the charge.
The same could be said of another Martin Luther, who led a reformation in his own right, standing for a different kind of protestantism. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929 with the name Michael King, but his father changed it to Martin Luther when he was five out of respect for the founder of the Protestant Reformation.
Though it’s clear that Dr. King’s theology didn’t square in every way with his German Reformer namesake, the two men shared several key gospel truth essentials—like all men being created in the image of God and the love of God in Jesus Christ extending to all men. King believed these simple but profound truths and thus labored that all men be treated equally regardless of kindred, tribe, tongue, nation, and yes—color.
The problem was that in America at the time equality for blacks was missing. Schools, restaurants, hotels, and buses were segregated by color. Blacks were systematically marginalized with the enforcement of Jim Crow laws. Violence toward blacks was often swept under the rug by authorities. Seeing the systemic social, ethnic, and economic prejudice all around him, King determined to give his life for the cause of civil rights.
In his now famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King references Martin Luther’s bold stand at the Diet of Worms when he was asked to recant of his beliefs, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” It’s clear that Dr. King felt himself to be in the same position when it came to the injustice and prejudice toward blacks in his day. He couldn’t recant or remain indifferent. The time of waiting was over. The time for action was now.
Over the years of protesting for this new reformation, King won significant victories and experienced painful defeats. He was a hero to many; he was a villain to many others. Threats on his life, on his wife and children, became commonplace. Those threats escalated as the civil rights battles grew fiercer. Ultimately, King’s commitment to justice cost him his very life. Fifty years ago this year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed outside room 306 at the historic Lorraine hotel in Memphis, TN. President Ronald Reagan signed into law Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday on the third Monday of January, which means we have the opportunity to pause and give thanks to God for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, remembering his cry for reformation and joining his protest until everything is exactly as it ought to be (Revelation 21:1-4).