This post is the seventh in our series this month on the spiritual practices of activism that are rooted in and enhance our faith lives.
We must accept finite disappointment,
but never lose infinite hope.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
I have so enjoyed the posts shared so far on Mihee’s blog about justice, and spiritual practices of activism! I have long wrestled with the tension between spirituality and justice. While the integration between them seems like it should be obvious, that is not always the case. I’ve met a lot of people along the journey who emphasize spirituality without justice, as well as justice without spirituality.
Hebrews 13.7 says we should remember our leaders, and “consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” The faith leader whose faith I most admire when it comes to this topic is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His ability to integrate justice and spirituality into a cohesive form of faith activism is exactly the “way of life” that I want to imitate.
The clearest account of this integration was on display on January 27, 1956 – an account that he recorded in detail in his journal. It was close to midnight, and King was exhausted.
The events of the last year had seemed to unfold at blinding speed. In December 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested in Alabama for refusing to give up her seat at the front of the bus for a white man, and that became the match that lit the Civil Rights fire. A boycott was organized, and Dr. King was recruited to lead it. He initially had only lukewarm interest, but ended up forming the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) with a group of other concerned citizens. The boycott to stop segregated busing was challenging but ultimately successful. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the bus segregation laws of Montgomery were unconstitutional, the boycott ended, and Martin Luther King had become a national hero and an acknowledged leader in the civil rights struggle.
But the victory had not come without cost. King’s life was now consistently in danger, and it was taking a psychological and spiritual toll on him. On this particular night in January, Coretta and his two-month old daughter Yolanda, whom they affectionately nicknamed “Yoki,” were already asleep, and he was eager to join them.
Just before he got into bed the phone rang. King grimaced, suspecting that he knew what awaited him if he chose to answer. For most people a middle of the night phone call would be unusual, but for the King family it was becoming too common. Threatening phone calls had become a daily reality for them. Afraid that the ringing would wake his family, King reluctantly answered. The voice on the other end was as bad as he feared. One hateful insult was thrown at him after another, trying to tear apart his confidence. Once the long list of insults was finished, the caller ended the threat with a nasty finale. King was told that if he and his family didn’t leave Montgomery immediately, they wouldn’t live to see the end of the week.
Dr. King hung up without comment, as he had begun to do when receiving one of these disturbing calls. He had been able to ignore these calls for the most part, but something about this one cut all the way to the bone. Maybe it was the hatred that oozed from the words of this particular threat. Maybe it was exhaustion. Maybe it was the sheer number of threats finally catching up.
He tried to calm himself down and decided to join his wife in bed. But as he lay there staring at the ceiling, anxiety began to take hold of him. He began to think of his precious daughter and her little gentle smile. He began to think of his beautiful wife who had sacrificed her music career so that he could take up leadership in the south. He began to wonder if the risk level was getting too high, and feared that he might be putting his precious family in harm’s way. What if they were taken away from him? Or more likely, what if he was taken from them?
The anxiety became overwhelming, and Dr. King realized he was not going to be able to fall asleep. He got up and headed to the kitchen to make a middle-of-the-night pot of coffee. He sat at the table and breathed deeply, trying to calm himself down. But, like an incoming tide, the waves of fear and anxiety continued to rush in.
As the fear intensified that night, Dr. King began to entertain thoughts of resigning his post and stepping back from his important but dangerous mission. He began to develop an exit strategy, in hopes that he could figure out “a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.”
Sitting at the kitchen table sipping the coffee, King’s thoughts were interrupted by a sudden notion that at once intensified his desperation and clarified his options:
“Something said to me, ‘You can’t call on Daddy now, you can’t call on Mama. You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.’”
As the son of a pastor, prayer was a familiar practice in the King home. But that night he discovered that there are different kinds of prayers needed for different kinds of situations. There is a type of prayer that is sweet yet often superficial – a type of prayer where we ask God to bless us and keep us as we pursue our dreams. Then there is another type of prayer that comes from the deepest part of the soul – the type of prayer that we need to genuinely sustain our activism efforts for the actualization of justice. It was in this desperate place that Dr. King threw himself before God:
“Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I still think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
King sat quiet, alone with his thoughts and prayers. He allowed the words of his petition to hang in the air for what seemed like forever. Suddenly, Dr. King sensed the presence of God begin to come near. He had a personal experience of Immanuel – “God with us.” God began to speak to Dr. King’s heart in a way that felt unmistakable:
“Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for the truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.”
I love this part of Dr. King’s story. It strips away the romanticism of pursuing justice. It reminds us that it is serious work to stand up for truth. To do so places us squarely against systems, structures, and oppositional powers – both at the human and the spiritual level.
But it also reminds us that this is the work of Jesus Christ himself.
When we stand up for justice, and when we stand up for truth, we stand next to the one who embodied his very identity in these ideals. We were never designed to fight justice on our own. To do so is a fool’s errand. The only genuine source of power and transformation comes from that deeply spiritual place.
Here is how Dr. King finished his autobiographical description of that dark night of the soul. I come back to this often, as I’m convinced it’s the only place where true courage comes from in the fight for justice:
“I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone… I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before… Almost at once my fears began to go… My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
 Clayborne Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, (Grand Central Publishing, 2001) p.77
 Clayborne Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, (Grand Central Publishing, 2001) p.78
Daniel Hill is the pastor of River City Church in Chicago, Illinois, which is a multiethnic, economically diverse church. He is also the author of the book10:10: Life to the Fullest.