On 4th April this year at Westminster Abbey we held a day conference and a special service to mark the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. on 4th April 1968. The civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, of which he became the figurehead, was seeking to right a wrong in America where black people were segregated from white. The spring of the movement for King, a Baptist pastor in Montgomery Alabama, was when Rosa Parks in 1955 refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. The rest of her story is American history…her arrest and trial, a 381-day Montgomery bus boycott, and, finally, the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1956 that segregation on transportation was unconstitutional.
In 1963, Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC gave his most famous speech: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”
People in America and beyond were inspired by King’s dream. In 1964, he became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Laws were changed in his country. Martin Luther King Day was established as a national holiday in the United States in 1986. His influence is still honoured. The US Embassy supported the Westminster Abbey conference and service to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his assassination.
150 people attended the conference, young and old, black and white, Christian, Jew and Muslim. 900 people came to the special service in the Abbey itself. Our purpose was to pay attention to the dream which Martin Luther King had of a United States in which black and white could live together in equality, justice and harmony. We wanted to apply his vision to our day and country, where, although the law forbids segregation and discrimination, divisions between black and white, Christian and Muslim, appear deep and damaging. To build an inclusive, harmonious and peaceful society here and throughout the world is one of the greatest challenges we face as a civilisation.
The life and death of Martin Luther King made a difference. No doubt many of his friends and associates supposed that his death would mark the end of his dream, and that what he had proclaimed would now be ignored. The friends of Jesus must have had much the same thought. His death must have seemed like the end of all their hopes. Some of them terrified remained locked in a place of safety not knowing where to turn.
That is where history would have left them, had it not been for the experiences of Simon Peter, Mary Magdalen, the other apostles and other disciples and ultimately of many more, which led them to believe that Jesus who had been dead was alive and that his love was still powerful. Nothing less than the resurrection of Jesus can explain how these demoralised and terrified disciples, afraid for their lives, were transformed into people who could go out and proclaim to all that would listen the fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Now they no longer feared for their lives, indeed were willing to give their lives for the truth they were proclaiming. Many of them gave their lives.
Jesus came to bring life, to free people from the darkness of sin and death and to enable us to live together in love, joy and peace. That is why Martin Luther King’s vision of a world in which all are equally valued and all can live in harmony is a truly Christian vision. The task of establishing justice and peace cannot be achieved by political or social activism alone.
Jesus could not achieve his vision without being prepared to give up his life. As he said of himself, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” His death was the gateway to life not only for himself, but for all who trust him. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Martin Luther King’s death might have been a key factor in allowing his vision to be caught by people who otherwise would never have seen. As they said of Jesus, “He saved others; himself he could not save.”
This evening’s readings hold out a vision of a world transformed, completed and perfected by God. The first lesson comes from the 6th century BC when God’s people of the kingdom of Judah have been in exile in Babylon for 50 years but are now allowed by Cyrus King of Persia to return to the holy land. They begin to rebuild the ruined Temple in Jerusalem. Zerubbabel who is amongst the first returning exiles begins the task but is almost overwhelmed by the demand. The prophet Zechariah promises that the work does not in the end depend on human effort and human strength but on God’s will. “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you.” The Apocalypse or Revelation, the last book of the bible, completes the vision of a world transformed, completed and perfected by God. “I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
The task of building a humane and just society, a world order in which all live together in peace and harmony, in which none is preferred and none disadvantaged on the grounds of the colour of their skin or accidents of birth, a task to which many politicians and social activists have set their hands in the 19th and 20th centuries, seems from the perspective of the early 21st century impossible of achievement. There seems no basis for human optimism, but, based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and in the assurance that the great work of completing and perfecting the creation, in a new heaven and a new earth, is God’s work and he will perform it, there remain solid grounds for Christian hope. The work of Christians is to collaborate with God in achieving his ultimate goal: that all should live in unity with him and thus with each other in a world transformed.
“I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Very Rev’d Dr. John Hall, Dean of Westminster Abbey
20th April 2008