For Martin Luther King Day

(This is Neil). Perhaps Martin Luther King Day is most valuable when it forces us to question ourselves. Last week in the New Republic, Rick Perlstein suggested that Dr King “represented something truly terrifying … that seekers of justice may overturn what we see as the natural order and still be lionized.” And some of us might find King’s irreducibly religious motivations and his use of religious language just as terrifying as his civil disobedience. Reflect on a telling sentence from Thomas Merton’s letter of consolation to Coretta Scott King after her husband’s death: “He knew the nation was under judgment and he tried everything to stay the hand of God and man.” Merton would himself later write to a friend, “I feel that we have already crossed a definitive line into a more apocalyptic kind of time …”

If we are to make sense of Martin Luther King Day, we will have to understand what it means to speak of divine judgment and the “hand of God,” and how this God might move us to “overturn what we see as the natural order” at great personal expense in an “apocalyptic kind of time.” More specifically, we will have to begin to dialogue with the African American religious experience that shaped Dr King and his own words. I would like to do this in a very small way here. I’ve been paging through the Baptist theologian Allen Dwight Callahan’s The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible (you can read an EJ Dionne column about the book here). Reverend Callahan mentions Martin Luther King in his chapter on the Exodus. Callahan tells us that African Americans have identified with the enslaved Israelites because of their shared experience of bondage and abjection, and they have envisioned Moses as a great political leader:

Speaking of his black soldiers, white Union Army commander Thomas Wentworth Higginson remarked in 1864, “There is no part of the Bible with which they are so familiar as the story of the deliverance of Israel. Moses is their ideal of all that is high, and noble, and perfect, in man. I think they have been accustomed to regard Christ not so much in the light of a spiritual Deliverer, as that of a second Moses who would eventually lead them out of their prison-house of bondage.” Preachers from antebellum times on have spoken of leadership in the language and image of the call narrative of Moses. A Virginia preacher’s description of his calling at the beginning of the twentieth century is illustrative: “One day when I was working in the field all by myself, God told me he wanted me to [be] a leader for my people like Moses. I complained that I was not prepared. And God said, ‘you go and I’ll go with you and speak for you.’ From that day I became some sort of leader of my people.”

Martin Luther King would claim the role of Moses as well, but only on the eve of his death. Callahan recounts how King then gives his people the challenge of entering a Promised Land that he has seen but will not himself enter (“Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain”). This sense of imminent death separates King from other speakers who have drawn on Moses’ farewell instruction, like the Puritan leader John Winthrop. Dr King’s allusion to Moses, made shortly before he was shot and killed, shows us the terror of following God and leading his people to freedom, and how this Mosaic role can only be sustained by hope. As the Negro spiritual “Walk Together Children” goes, “Don’t you get weary/There’s a great camp meeting in the Promised Land.”

So, we can at least begin to understand what it might mean to speak of “divine judgment,” the “hand of God,” and an “apocalyptic kind of time,” and how all this might move us to “overturn what we see as the natural order,” when we start to see the Exodus as more than just a historical event. The Exodus might be reenacted in our own present – Callahan writes that the Exodus might be “a new thing … not a heritage but a hope” with a new Moses and a Promised Land still ahead of us.

Reverend Callahan writes:

[W]hen the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and 1960s brought the cadences of black preaching into the public square, Martin Luther King, Jr., became the Moses of his people, marching toward the promise of a postapartheid society. King called Southern segregationists “pharaohs” who had used every means to hold African Americans in “the Egypt of segregation” and to bar them from the “Promised Land” of full citizenship.

With poignancy King himself takes on the mantle of Moses in his last speech, delivered the night before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. King structures his remarks with the same form that we find in Deuteronomy’s report of the end of Moses’s career on Mount Pisgah. Both testaments, that of King and that of Moses, open with the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt. Before ascending Mount Nebo, Moses concludes his address to the Israelites with a retrospective of the Exodus.

And Moses called unto all Israel, and said unto them, Ye have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt unto Pharaoh, and unto all his servants, and unto all his land;

The great temptations which thine eyes have seen, the signs, and those great miracles:

Yet the Lord hath not given you a heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, from this day.

And I have led you forty years in the wilderness: your clothes are not waxen old upon you, and thy shoe has not waxen old upon your foot.

Ye have not eaten bread, neither have ye drunk wine or strong drink: that ye might know that I am the Lord your God. (Deut 29:2-8)

King goes on to say, however, that he would neither stop at the triumph of the Exodus nor choose to live in the moment of entry into the Promised Land of the Israelites. The highlights that King reviews in his historical summary are not those of the biblical Exodus but those of the Civil Rights movement and the movements of emancipation that punctuated the early 1960s.

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding – something is happening in the world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee – the cry is always the same – “We want to be free.”

At the end of the sermon, King turns to the testamentary language of Deuteronomy 34 to refer neither to the people nor to the movement but to himself. King himself has looked over; King himself bequeaths to the children that Moses led the legacy and challenge of the Promised Land he has seen but shall not enter. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it does matter with me now. Because I’ve seen the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like Anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.”

Though King’s many admirers hailed him as one like unto Moses, only here, in the shadow of death, did King identify himself with the figure of Moses. Like Moses, he looks over into the Promised Land that he knows he will not enter, and like Moses he charges his followers to take the land with a confidence. The mantle of Moses, that venerable ideal of African American leadership, weighed on Martin Luther King, Jr., throughout his public life. He claimed that mantle only on the eve of his death.


In his last speech, Martin Luther King, Jr., identifies with Moses as he stands at the threshold of the land of promise. At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites gather on the plains of Moab on the eastern side of the Jordan River, where the aged Moses rehearses the history of Israel’s troubled journey to freedom and bequeaths to each of the twelve tribes of Israel a patrimony. Ascending to the peak called Pisgah on Mount Nebo overlooking the Jordan River valley and the land of Canaan beyond, Moses dies after viewing the land that the children of Israel would soon come to conquer and inhabit. Martin Luther King, like John Winthrop 338 years earlier, concludes his discourse with a paraphrase of Moses’s farewell instruction to Israel. Unlike Winthrop, however, King is chillingly faithful to the testamentary rhetoric of Moses’s speech. The rhetoric only works if the speaker is a testator – someone who bequeaths blessings that will take effect only after his imminent death. This was not so for Winthrop but tragically so for Martin Luther King. And though King is Moses the testator who “may not get there,” he speaks of the collective fulfillment of the promise: “We as a people shall get to the Promised Land.”

The great Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel, who introduced King to the 1963 annual meeting of the United Synagogue of America as a modern prophet, once commented, “The exodus began but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”

King spoke in the future tense of the Negro spirituals because, in the third quarter of the twentieth century, he still shared their yearning for a Promised Land in sight but beyond reach.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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