THIS republication of a selection of Dr Martin Luther King’s sermons is indeed a gift. To begin with, they are beautiful examples of homiletic art in the way in which they integrate well-executed rhetoric with thoughtful exegesis and analysis of the context in which they were written. Even better, they bring to life the profound Christian spirituality that shaped and guided their author’s life, ministry, and martyrdom.
I didn’t encounter these sermons when they first appeared; but even those who have already read some of them will find them worth revisiting as the classics of Christian spirituality that they are. Few people have spoken or written so persuasively about the centrality of love in Christian life, or about how it comes to expression in forgiveness, and in learning to love our enemies and oppressors.
While these sermons originated in the Civil Rights Movement as it endeavoured to overcome the racist inheritance of American slavery, they seem equally apt in the present era of nationalist populism, worship of the unfettered market economy, and indifference to civic values. “Love in Action”, interpreting the prayer of Jesus for the forgiveness of his killers, identifies and confutes the heightening of political hatreds which is as much a feature of our time as of King’s. “Loving Your Enemies” could be preached today with relatively little revision and is as relevant to intra-church conflicts as to those in the secular world.
Classic preaching that still rings true: Martin Luther KingAll the sermons address fundamental issues of Christian (and, indeed, human) life. “The Man Who Was a Fool”, for example, takes on the over-valuation of financial success which seems to be even more of a cultural fetish in the present day. “The Drum Major Instinct” opens up the meaning of Jesus’ insistence that the last shall be first in a way that proved prophetic of King’s own “faithfulness unto death”.
For the historically minded, this collection should lay to rest any notion that the Civil Rights Movement was simply a social movement in religious garb. Social movement it was, but its soul was drawn directly from the gospel — with some help from Gandhi. For preachers, there is an added element of interest in that the two additional selections, the “other preachings” of the title, appear — in contrast to the more polished texts drawn from the earlier publication Strength to Love — to have been transcribed from tapes, retaining some of the particular vigour and intimacy possible in a more vernacular style.
The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, in the United States.
A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and other preachings
Martin Luther King, Jr
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