MLK, The Church, and Poor People

By Steve Manskar

Wesleyan leadership mlk 300x228
Martin Luther King, August 28, 1963. Public Domain.

January 16, 2012

Today we honor the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today countless people will read and listen to his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC in the summer of 1963. There will be peaceful marches and speeches about his advocacy for equality and non-violence.

The Dr. King celebrated by the media and dominant culture is stuck in 1963. It seems the culture has embraced the message of racial equality. However, I suspect we will hear nothing about Dr. King's opposition to the war in Viet Nam. We certainly will not see or hear anything about the Poor People's Campaign he helped to lead when he was assassinated in April 1968.

Dr. King is a prophet for our time. Poverty is endemic today. The economic crisis in which we live has resulted in an inordinate increase in the numbers of people earning incomes below the "poverty line." And yet our political leaders are not talking about poverty or poor people. Frankly, these days, in the current polarized political culture, I don't expect political or government leaders to talk or care about poverty or poor people. But I do expect the Church to be a voice for the poor. Christians are baptized to follow and serve with the Triune God who came among us as a poor, homeless, itinerant carpenter. The Scriptures tell us that God has a preferential option for the poor. Why then is the Church silent on the increasing rates of poverty and increasing numbers of poor people living in our neighborhoods, towns, and cities?

MLK shared John Wesley's concern for the plight of the poor. He understood that God always take the side of the poor. Therefore, the church and Christians must always be with and for the poor. The church must reject and resist the cultures worship of wealth, power, consumerism, materialism, and individualism. Holiness of heart and life calls Christians to be with the poor because when we spend time with them, know their names, listen to their struggles, support them in their efforts to simply live in dignity.

A good way to honor this holiday is to read and contemplate Wesley's sermon, "On Visiting the Sick",

One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is, that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it; and then plead their voluntary ignorances an excuse for their hardness of heart. "Indeed, Sir," said person of large substance, "I am a very compassionate man. But, to tell you the truth, I do not know anybody in the world that is in want." How did this come to pass? Why, he took good care to keep out of their way; and if he fell upon any of them unawares "he passed over on the other side."