Motivated by Faith, Martin Luther King Still Inspires

His commitment to Christianity formed much of his civil rights legacy

Monday, Jan. 16, marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day — a day to pause and honor the contributions Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made to our country.

It has been 54 years since Rev. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and 49 years have passed since his assassination. Today, our children learn about segregation in America as a thing of the distant past. Although racism is still an unfortunate reality, there are efforts to bridge this divide, and Rev. King was at the forefront.

Related: The Secularization of Martin Luther King Jr.

As his legacy and influence live on, it is vital to acknowledge what influenced Dr. King. He was a Baptist minister at the start of his career. He once stated, “Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment.”

He continued, “You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don’t plan to run for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher. And what I’m doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man.”

Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership in the civil rights movement is also historically tied to his dedication to nonviolent action. He based his philosophy on the New Testament teachings of Jesus Christ.

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In Matthew 5:38-40, Jesus teaches in His Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”

And in Matthew 26:52, Jesus instructs Peter, “Put your sword back in its place. For all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

Even when his pacifist approach became unpopular, King did not sway from his convictions, which were based in Scripture. He remained steadfast in his effort to love his enemies. Jesus said in Matthew 5:44, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

It’s one thing to love our families and friends and maybe even people we don’t really like much. But loving our enemies is a higher calling — one only possible because we are made in the image and likeness of God. He is love, and God offers His love in a relationship through Jesus Christ — and we by extension may offer that same love to others.

Related: Jesus Calls for Us to Follow Him

How then can we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day as more than just a government or school holiday? Here are some ideas based on quotes by King himself, as influenced by his faith:

1.) “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.”
Forgiveness isn’t necessarily forgetting. It comes in spite of remembering. Forgiveness of others not only releases them, it releases you from bitterness.

2.) “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'”
Service isn’t an activity reserved only for the holidays. Think of how to make a positive, ongoing impact in the lives of others.

3.) “It is cheerful to God when you rejoice or laugh from the bottom of your heart.”
Embrace the joy of life. There will always be trouble — but enjoy the blessings given to you and thank God for them with a simple acknowledgment of prayer.

4.) “The end of life is not to be happy, nor to achieve pleasure and avoid pain, but to do the will of God, come what may.”
Seek out what the will of God is for your life. If you have already written your resolutions or goals for 2017, maybe you’ve even given up on them already. Yet there’s always time to seek out God’s will.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day and recall the reverend who did so much to enlighten Americans, may we also celebrate the potential of the future and identify our own possible contributions. It is a day to embrace others for who God created them to be — and press on toward the goal that He has for our lives.

Katie Nations, married for 15 years, is a working mother of three young children. She lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 

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