One of the most revered heroes of modern society is Martin Luther King, Jr. All over the nation there are schools, roads, museums, and even a holiday named after him. His memory is invoked in all the classrooms of America and children’s libraries are filled with biographies and stories recounting his life.
Of course, it’s rarely mentioned that King believed in God. We teach the little ones that he “had a dream,” but we don’t mention what motivated him, what strengthened him, and what gave him so much courage and wisdom, even though there’s no doubt that his faith inspired him.
Atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, have a difficult time fitting King into their argument that “religion poisons everything.” They even try to rationalize that he wasn’t a “real” Christian.
Yet King was a passionate follower of Jesus Christ. His arguments often came from the Scriptures or from theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, or St. Augustine. For example, King explained in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that much of his understanding on civil disobedience came straight from the Bible:
“Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.”
Unfortunately for Hitchens, he cannot claim the civil rights activist as his own when words such as this flowed from King’s pen, trying to explain why he no longer minded being called an extremist:
“Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ."
Followers of Jesus are still usually cast as “extremists” today, but they share the same biblical heritage as Martin Luther King, Jr. and can proudly and honestly claim him as their brother in Christ.