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How should people honor Martin Luther King

How should people honor Martin Luther King on this year’s observance of his holiday on January 17th? It depends.

As of this writing there is no clear assurance of the passage of two Voting Right Acts both stalled in that profoundly and structurally undemocratic institution, the U.S. Senate. Unless this changes, this obviously demands strong attention, as do other issues which affect the quality of life for millions.

Usually in most urban centers there are multiple MLK events, but that is unwise in COVID-19 days, so perhaps Zooms or small family events are most appropriate.

There are other matters that should be addressed, including educating ourselves better about King. It’s appalling that many people have a limited understanding of his role in history. How many know of his opposition to the Vietnam War or support of the Poor People’s March? Or how much violence he bravely faced?

King’s life has been well documented. He published five books and his writings have been anthologized in many ways. Many video documentaries and docudramas are available. Excellent resources are available at the King Legacy website:

But unfortunately many know so little. There is a kind of highlight film in people’s heads of Rosa Parks/Birmingham/Dream speech/ Selma/assassination and that’s about it.
Few things grate on me more than hearing racists think they are quoting him accurately and that he agrees with them.

Something unusual has happened to me personally. Thanks to a Progressive Christianity suggestion that I put a video of an interview with Dag Hammarskjöld’s biographer, Roger Lipsey, on YouTube, I have my own channel, Robert H. O’Sullivan, on that platform. Four months ago I decided to post a video of a 30 minute sermon I gave in 2018 at the time of the 50th anniversary of King’s death. Surprisingly, it has had over 2.1K views and has been attracting about a hundred a day for weeks.

Why has this been happening? I am not sure, except I remember the comments of a number of people who heard it live and said they didn’t know a lot of those matters I told them about. Check it out below:

Another important avenue to explore was King’s skills as a communicator/orator.
King as a preacher and prayer- leader often spoke extemporaneously while sometimes using prepared text and/or notes in a style of black preaching which often featured King James English, repetition, call and response. Most famously, at the March on Washington, he left his prepared text after Mahalia Jackson shouted to him, “tell about your dream!”
His sermons and prayers are available in two books, the first of which is introduced by Raphael Warnock, now U. S. Senator. In- formation follows from the King Legacy website:

As Dr. King prepared for the Birmingham campaign in early 1963, he drafted the final sermons for Strength to Love, a volume of his best-known homilies. King had begun working on the sermons during a fortnight in jail in July 1962. Having been arrested for holding a prayer vigil outside Albany City Hall, King and Ralph Abernathy shared a jail cell for fifteen days that was, according to King, ‘‘dirty, filthy, and ill-equipped’’ and “the worse I have ever seen.” While behind bars, he spent uninterrupted time preparing the drafts for classic sermons such as “Loving Your Enemies,” “Love in Action,” and “Shattered Dreams,” and continued to work on the volume after his release. A Gift of Love includes these classic sermons, along with two new preachings. Collectively they present King’s fusion of Christian teachings and social consciousness, and promote his prescient vision of love as a social and political force for change.
Prayer and the Spiritual Path of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Excerpt from “Loving Your Enemies”:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be children of your Father which is in heaven. matthew 5:43–45

Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to “love your enemies.” Some men have sincerely felt that its actual practice is not possible. It is easy, they say, to love those who love you, but how can one love those who openly and insidiously seek to defeat you? Others, like the philosopher Nietzsche, contend that Jesus’ exhortation to love one’s enemies is testimony to the fact that the Christian ethic is designed for the weak and cowardly, and not for the strong and courageous Jesus, they say, was an impractical idealist.

In spite of these insistent questions and persistent objections, this command of Jesus challenges us with new urgency.

Upheaval after upheaval has reminded us that modern man is traveling along a road called hate, in a journey that will bring us to destruction and damnation. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world. Je- sus is not an impractical idealist: he is the practical realist.

I am certain that Jesus understood the difficulty inherent in the act of loving one’s enemy. He never joined the ranks of those who talk glibly about the easiness of the moral life. He realized that every genuine expression of love grows out of a consistent and total surrender to God. So when Jesus said “Love your enemy,” he was not unmindful of its stringent qualities. Yet he meant every word of it. Our responsibility as Christians is to discover the meaning of this command and seek passionately to live it out in our daily lives.

Let us be practical and ask the question, How do we love our enemies?

First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and in- jury upon us. It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must al- ways be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression. The wrongdoer may request forgiveness. He may come to himself, and, like the prodigal son, move up some dusty road, his heart palpitating with the desire for forgiveness. But only the injured neighbor, the loving father back home, can really pour out the warm waters of forgiveness.

Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the cancelling of a debt. The words “I will forgive you, but I’ll never forget what you’ve done” never explain the real nature of forgiveness. Certainly one can never forget, if that means erasing it totally from his mind. But when we forgive, we forget in the sense that the evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding a new relationship. Likewise, we can never say, “I will forgive you, but I won’t have anything further to do with you.” Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again. Without this, no man can love his enemies. The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies.

Introducer: Dr. Lewis Baldwin

Throughout his life, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., turned to prayer for his own spiritual fulfillment while also delivering prayers to the

public as a way to inspire and reaffirm a quest for peace and social justice.
“Thou, Dear God” is the first and only collection of prayers by Dr. King. Arranged thematically for all seasons of life—including prayers for spiritual guidance, special occasions, and times of adversity and trial—each section is introduced by minister and scholar Lewis V. Baldwin. From the private words King recited as a seminarian and graduate student to the powerful public sermons he delivered as a preacher and civil rights leader, these prayers will prick the conscience, stimulate the intellect, and rekindle the spirit.

“Many of us are eager to learn all we can about Dr. King. There are many books about his work and his thought, but ‘Thou, Dear God’ provides a unique and needed window into his spiritual life.”—Brian D. McLaren, public theologian, blogger, activist and author of numerous books including A New Kind of Christian

“If you want to know the source of his dream and his courage, understand what he lived for and why he was willing to die for it, eavesdrop on King’s conversations with God.” –The Rev. Dr. James Alexander Forbes, Jr. Senior Minister Emeritus of The Riverside Church and President of the Healing of the Nations Foundation

“The prayers of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. carefully compiled in ‘Thou, Dear God’ speak to the journey and challenges of a prophetic spirit in the midst of turbulent circumstances. One of the most catalytic voices in history takes us on a personal tour that through the power of prayer reconciled sanctification with service, covenant with community and righteousness with justice. Martin Luther King Jr. had conversations with God. As a result, the world will never be the same again. ” –Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, President, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference & Hispanic Evangelical Association
$15.00 | Paperback or E-book

Selections from the chapter, “Prayers for Social Justice”
“In the Moment of Difficult Decision”

Eternal God out of whose mind this great cosmic universe we bless thee. Help us to seek that which is high, noble and Good. Help us in the moment of difficult decision. Help us to work with renewed vigor for a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color.

(This prayer was recited at the end of King’s message “Civilization’s Great Need,” which may have been delivered during the summer of 1949 while he was serving with his father, Martin Luther King, Sr., at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church as an associate minister. He was still a student at Crozer

Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. One also detects King’s early concern for the elimination of racism, poverty, and war, world problems that he, years later as a civil rights leader, would call “the giant triplets.”)
“Free at Last! Free at Last!”

God grant that right here in America and all over this world, we will choose the highway; a way in which men will live together as brothers. A way in which the nations of the world will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. A way in which every man will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. A way in which every nation will allow justice to run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. A way in which men will do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. A way in which men will be able to stand up, and in the midst of oppression, in the midst of darkness and agony, they will be able to stand there and love their enemies, bless those persons that curse them, pray for those individuals that despitefully use them. And this is the way that will bring us once more into that society which we think of as the brotherhood of man. This will be that day when white people, colored people, whether they are brown or whether they are yellow or whether they are black, will join together and stretch out with their arms and be able to cry out: “Free at last! Free at last! Great God Almighty, we are free at last!”

(A statement that takes the form of a prayer at the end of King’s speech “Some Things We Must Do,” delivered at the Second Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 5, 1957. Clearly, the prayer reflects King’s vision of a global beloved community, thus refuting claims that the civil rights leader’s thought and activities did not take on international significance until after he received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964. King’s heavy reliance on Old and New Testament passages and images are most evident here, as he quotes Isaiah 2:4, Amos 5:24, Micah 6:8, Matthew 5:44, and Luke 6:27–28.12)

“A New Day of Justice and Brotherhood and Peace”
God grant that we will be participants in this newness and this magnificent development. If we will but do it, we will bring about a new day of justice and brotherhood and peace. And that day the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy. God bless you.

(One of King’s very last public prayers, recited at the end of his sermon “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution.” This sermon was preached at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1968, five days before King was assassinated. King paraphrases Job 38:6–7.)

Read more from this chapter on Scribd.

Several of my favorites are quoted in the visuals from this video:

Robert “Silky” O’Sullivan, a longtime resident of the Oakland/Berkeley area, has retired to a beautiful garden home in Brookings on the Oregon coast. He is mourning the death of his wife of over 51 years, Alice Wildermuth O’Sullivan, in April 2020. She had distinguished careers as a musician and attorney. Hear many examples of her musical gifts on the Alice Wildermuth O’Sullivan YouTube channel. Three German Shepherds help to keep him appreciating the wonders of creation and are comforts during these days of loss.

After many career involvements (including politics and media, high school teaching and pastoring), he has discovered a new vocation as a “Left Coast” ‘poet and writer, deeply influenced by William Blake and Dag Hammarskjold, who both embodied brilliant Christian visions while working in remarkable ways for justice and peace. O’Sullivan’s new words to Christmas carols and other hymns, incorporating peace and justice themes, and a Blake-inspired “unofficial international anthem” have been published in, along with civil rights and other writings.

Review & Commentary