I was fourteen and watching TV when a special bulletin interrupted the programming to say that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis.
1968 was a year haunted by violence that started in January with the bloody Tet offensive in Vietnam, resulting in the deaths of thousands, including Americans engaged in a war that not even its chief prosecutor, President Johnson, thought could be won.
Two months after King's death, Senator Robert Kennedy, an opponent of the war trying to regain political ascendancy after Senator Eugene McCarthy's performance against the incumbent president in the New Hampshire primary hinted that the Democratic nomination could be wrested from the Johnson, would be gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel.
Throughout the year, tensions over civil rights and the war led to sometimes violent confrontations between demonstrators and the police on American streets. The Kerner Commission, appointed by Johnson to look into what led to the bloodshed in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, concluded it was the result of "a police riot," the first time I remember ever hearing that term.
It seemed to me sometimes in 1968, that America was losing its mind.
But towering above that bloody year, despite the imperfections he shared with the rest of the human race and that had cut him down in the spring, stood Martin Luther King, Jr.
Historically, King was the descendant of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and the Union Armies of the Civil War. Like them, he insisted that the American compact, embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, distantly descended from the truths of the Bible, was built on a simple principle. That principle King summarized in a single sentence: "No man is free until all men are free."
True freedom is built on reciprocity with and mutual accountability to my neighbor. When I enslave others--physically, spiritually, economically, or in any other way, I also enslave myself. When I set others free, I am free myself. When I voluntarily cede my "right" to hold others down, I lift them and myself up.
If I insist on enslaving my neighbor, treating him as my inferior, or being indifferent to his yearning for freedom from fear, discrimination, or violence, I am enslaving myself...to ways of life that retain my status at the expense of others, to moral putrefaction, to constant fear that my sins will catch up with me, knowing, deep in my soul, that there must be a reckoning, to the disintegration of the lives of each and every one of us.
King called whites and blacks and all Americans away from the selfishness that would enslave all so long as they failed to recognize and pursue this foundational tenet of the American creed that King had crystallized:
No man is free until all men are free.
No citizen is free until all citizens are free.
No human being is free until all human beings are free.
Over the past several weeks, my wife and I have re-watched Ken Burns' beautiful documentary on the Civil War and, last night, Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln. It struck me as I watched these two works that America's Civil War has never ended.
After Appomattox, the war has taken its casualties and deaths: Lincoln, King, the thousands lynched in the South while the North turned the other way, and countless others.
The war is no longer regional and not just racial. You will find whites and blacks and others in all regions of the country anxious to keep faith with America's freedom creed. You will find others in all regions of the country rebelling against that creed.
There still are the haves and the have-nots, the marginalized and the beautiful people, the accepted and the disdained. We are still, in this great American experiment, finding out whether any nation "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" "can long endure."
Much of what is happening in America today--the fissures, the overt hatred, the refusal to be confused by facts--is an extension of the Civil War, battles to be added to the bloody list of Antietam, Gettysburg, Ford's Theatre, and the streets of Charlottesville in 2017. Each stand as witness to the very treason against the American compact exhibited when the first Rebel cannonball was shot at Fort Sumter. And it was this same treason, embedded deeply in the American soul, that caused James Earl Ray to murder Martin Luther King, Jr.
As a Christian, I have no illusions that the Kingdom of God in which there is perfect harmony between God, the human race made in His image, and God's creation, can be ushered in through political activism, laws, or wars.
The Kingdom of God is only experienced when sinners (like me), daily turn from sin and daily entrust their lives to Jesus Christ. As the man for whom King was named, Martin Luther writes in The Small Catechism of the petition of the Lord's Prayer taught by Jesus--"Thy kingdom come":
The kingdom of God comes indeed by itself, without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may also come to us.And:
God's kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace we believe his holy Word and live a godly life now and in eternity.It's Jesus and only Jesus Who can bring the Kingdom of God into this world, in the hearts and lives of His disciples, even as the world swirls madly in violence and hatred around us. We know this from Jesus Himself: "No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Even if we don't accept Jesus' Word for it, history and human experience make clear that all human attempts to establish a kingdom of harmony between God, humanity, and the Creation fail. Only God can bring His kingdom to us.
But God doesn't leave us stranded in complete chaos. God's Word is clear that God establishes governments in this fallen world awaiting the final consummation of God's Kingdom given through Christ. God does this because it's inborn to we human beings to only refrain from self-worshiping violence when there is a coercive force to rein in human thuggery.
Governments are meant to ensure simple justice. This is what King called the government and the society of his day to do. That call cost him his life. It's a call that still needs to be heard and heeded.
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]