by the Rev. James Phillips
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been hailed by many as the most prolific orator ever, in these United States of America. As we honor his memory this month, let us contemplate the power of his words. Through and because of Dr. Kings’ speeches and sermons, he was able to shape attitudes, to change hearts and to inspire righteous action. Dr. King’s turn of phrase and charismatic baritone voice moved people to tear down the walls of discrimination and open up the doors of equal opportunity for all of God’s children.
The God that we serve is a strategic architect. Martin King Jr., this Black man, came out of the Church. I believe that this was no historic accident; it had nothing to do with blind luck or the fickleness of fate. For it is within the Church, from our pulpits to our altars, from our choir lofts to the pews, that the sacred voices of salvation, love and justice emanate from the sanctuaries. The power of language derives from our Creator who uttered: “Let us make human kind in our own image.” 1 And His Son, Jesus, who urged us to rediscover our true purpose, to bring God glory: “You are the light of the world… Let your light shine before others that…” 2
Listen as Dr. King’s words still ring in our collective ears:
“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” 3
“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love… There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” 4
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” 5
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” 6
“And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” 7
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” 8
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.” 9
May we ask this of ourselves and the new president of our nation: Do your words turn folks towards hope or fear; forgiveness or resentment; compassionate action or selfish complacency? The prophet Isaiah warned us: “Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” 10
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of language must become our definitive standard in America. His usage of words is not some maximum goal that we strive to reach but the minimum measure of a democratic society.
Sisters and Brothers, we must always remember that words are another gift to us from God. Las palabras hacen la diferencia, good lyrics compliment the melody, and the appropriate vocabulary changes relationships. Do not forget- WORDS MATTER!
Our guest blogger, the Rev. James Phillips, is a member of our synod’s Racial Equity Team
1 Genesis 1:26
2 Matthew 5:14, 16
3 Citation not available
4 Loving your Enemies – Sermon – Christmas, 1957, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
5 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Stride Toward Freedom the Montgomery Story – Chapter XI Where Do We Go From Here
6 Likely from sermon in Selma, Alabama; March 8, 1965
7 “A proper sense of priorities,” address in Washington, D.C., February 6, 1968, Washington, D.C.
8 From sermon “Loving your enemies” included in “Strength to Love,” 1963
9 Martin Luther King’s Acceptance Speech, on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, December 10, 1964
10 Isaiah 5:20