Martin Luther King Jr., American Muslims, and 9/11

by Rick Love

I am thrilled about the new memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Dr. King is the first non-President to be honored in this way. How fitting that his monument stands between those of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Thomas Jefferson defined the dream of equality for all, Abraham Lincoln fought for it, and Martin Luther King Jr. implemented it – at least with respect to the African American community.

I rejoice that we are honoring Dr. King. Nevertheless, I wonder if we really get how disturbing and radical his message was. As my good friend and colleague Jim Mullins reminds me, peacemakers sometimes have to be peace disturbers to be effective.

Dr. King led a righteous revolt, challenging the white establishment about racial equality through non-violent resistance. He said NO to an age of white terrorism that dominated and controlled the African American community through violence, prejudice, complacency and arrogance. King was a peace disturber. He realized that true racial reconciliation meant that the evil discrimination of the mainstream white American public had to be exposed. King was radical and he lost his life for his revolutionary message.

So what does King have to do with Muslims? We know that he had a relationship with the Muslim leader Malcolm X. But we don’t really know how King would respond to Muslims in light of 9/11.

We do know, however, that three pillars of King’s message and movement have profound relevance to how followers of Jesus and Americans should relate to Muslims, especially with the anniversary of 9/11 so near.

Dr. King argued from the law of Moses, the Declaration of Independence, and the teaching of Jesus. For King, the fact that all people are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-28) provided the ethical basis for civil rights. For King, everybody was somebody because everybody was made in the image of God. Human beings created in God’s image are not created to oppress or be oppressed (See Richard W. Wills's excellent book: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Image of God).

This same message is explicit in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Dr. King believed that his movement, while forcefully adversarial, was quintessentially American. In fact it was a profound vindication of the American creed, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Dr. King used the law of Moses and the Declaration of Independence to argue for civil rights. But it was the person and teaching of Jesus that ultimately empowered the civil rights movement to overcome evil with good. The only perfect person who walked this earth - Jesus, the Prince of Peace - disturbed the status quo by loving the poor, reaching out to the marginalized and challenging religious leaders about their hypocrisy. Why did he do this? Because true peace is not just about the absence of conflict, but about the presence of harmony. True peace includes mercy and justice. So the status quo has to be challenged. And Jesus was crucified because of it.

At the center of King’s nonviolent resistance was Jesus’ teaching on love. The Sermon on the Mount inspired the civil rights movement. Motivated by Jesus’ teaching and example, they protested with the weapon of love. Nonviolent resistance had emerged as the technique of the movement, but love remained their ideal. As King said, “Christ furnished the motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method.”

So I have to conclude that King would say Muslims deserve civil treatment by virtue of their being God’s image-bearers. They deserve the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness because they live in America. I have to conclude that King would make love the defining characteristic of the church’s relationship with Muslims.

The best way to esteem King is not by honoring his monument, but by following his message - as it now relates to American Muslims. King said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” May God raise up movements of peace disturbers to challenge the church and Americans as a whole to model what it means to be faithful followers of Jesus and good Americans.