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Asking the clergy: What can The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. teach us about faith?


The "Stone of Hope" sculpture at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Monday is a federal holiday, marking the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. This week’s clergy discuss the role faith played for the influential civil rights leader, who was also a Baptist minister.

The Rev. Dyanne Pina

Executive director, Long Island Council of Churches

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” A simple yet complicated lesson. Simple, because it is clear-cut telling us to just take the first step. Complicated, because it is easier said than done. Faith is a fundamental tenet of Christianity. The Book of Hebrews dedicates an entire chapter on faith. It says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) Chapter 11 recalls the faith of Noah, who warned the people of his land about things not seen, and in holy fear built an ark; it recalls the faith of Abraham who became the father of nations that he never saw; it recalls the faith of Moses who led the Israelites to a land which he never walked.

King was the youngest man, and first black man, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was arrested 30 times for his civil rights advocacy. He believed, even if he would never live to see his effort come to fruition. In his 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.” King’s faith echoed the faith of Noah, Abraham and Moses. His faith was a belief, a conviction, that with God all things are possible — including peace and love amongst all peoples, all genders, all races, and all ethnicities.

Rabbi Michael Stanger

The Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation

I think The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has always had a tremendous amount to teach us about faith. First and foremost he was a religious man, a preacher and a member of the clergy. He often spoke and taught with biblical allusions and theological hope. As a rabbi, I have always found his sermons and speaking style to be incredibly moving and inspirational. And King was a man who never gave up — not when fighting for civil rights for his people, not when employing passive resistance in the face of water hoses and snarling police dogs. He never got angry or turned to violence although others in his shoes may have been tempted to. And he never lost faith in his fellow man; essentially that is what his “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington was about.

Sometimes even in the darkest days, when it seems that the opposition will never turn favorably toward us and our enemies will never be willing to embrace us in peace, when we may never overcome the binds of hatred and bigotry, that is when we have to have the most faith, like King did. To never give up in our hopes for a better world and a more humane lifestyle. King never gave up. He achieved a great deal in his lifetime. We as Americans are better off for his example, and we should all know some of the faith that he held and the values he fought so hard for. Let us be inspired by the life he led and the difference he made.

The Rev. William F. Brisotti

Pastor, Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal R.C. Church, Wyandanch

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would teach us that true faith leads to grassroots solidarity for universal justice. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) He would teach principles of nonviolent resistance to injustice. Nonviolence is the way of the strong, it is not from weakness; its goal is redemption and reconciliation; it seeks to defeat evil, not people; it accepts suffering without retaliation; it avoids external physical violence and internal violence of spirit; it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. In the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, given in Memphis the day before he was assassinated, he spoke about the parable of the Good Samaritan: “The priest and Levite ask: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But, the Good Samaritan reverses the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ ”

The gospel deals with the whole human person. King also said, “Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”

In our polarized and quarrelsome society, communities of faith should promote understanding and unity of hearts and minds for the common good. We need MLK’s visionary faith, enduring hope and unlimited love, now more than ever.


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