There are few speeches more memorable than Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. There are few moments more memorable the 1963 March on Washington in which more than 200,000 people gathered in support of civil rights for all people. Today, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we remember and celebrate a pioneer, an American hero, and a prophet to our world.
I do not use this final characterization lightly. While the word “prophet” and “being prophetic” get thrown around today to designate anyone who is counter-cultural or revolutionary, I mean to call Dr. King a prophet with all of the weight it used to bear, a prophet in the Old Testament sense of the word.
Dr. King saw the world with God’s eyes Being “prophetic,” in the Old Testament sense, is not a matter of predicting the future as much as it is seeing the present with the clarity of God’s vision. Prophets see the world not as human beings do, blinded by sinfulness and focused only on the “what is,” they see the world as God does, taking in the whole picture to know “what should be.” The prophet’s eyes are sensitive to injustice, maltreatment, division because s/he knows that these are not of the Kingdom.
Dr. King did not just see a world that was, he saw a world that could and should be. Like a prophet of God, there was a severe disconnect from what he saw—institutional racism—and the world that God had created. While his contemporaries in the clergy were blind to issues of the day, some even calling his words and actions, “unwise and untimely,” Dr. King saw that God desired something more. God desired justice.
Courage to speak truth to power But prophets are not just those who know that the world is far the Kingdom of God, they are the ones who have the courage to proclaim God’s Kingdom to those causing division and those who do not want to hear. Think of what it must have been like to be Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Amos. They lived in a world ruled by the sword without any rights of free speech. They did not speak with the backing of a political party or non-profit… they spoke with only the support of God’s Word.
Dr. King certainly did not speak alone, but given the climate of race relations in the country in his life, and given the places where he spoke, his situation was not all that different. Birmingham was not exactly a place where African-Americans were treated fairly under the law; Montgomery was not exactly a place where African-Americans possessed political control; Memphis (the place where he was eventually assassinated), was not exactly a place where African-Americans were respected for their opinions. Dr. King did not hide from the issues, speaking about them from afar only to those for whom he would receive support. He went to the frontline of the issue and spoke truth to power as someone without power at all.
His medium was the message Simply challenging the status quo or calling for revolution does not make one a prophet, though. What separates the Old Testament prophets from those fighting for a cause is that they embodied God’s message in their lives; their lives were a messages in themselves. In preaching peace, they did not set fire to the homes of the soldiers. In preaching economic justice, they did not steal from the rich or hoard undue wealth to themselves. Guided by prayer and upright lives, they spoke with their words and their deeds to reveal God’s word to the nations.
And so it was with Dr. King. Having faced oppression, hatred, and injustice, no one would have batted an eye if he had advocated retaliation and retribution for sins committed against African-Americans. “Take to the streets! Throw the white man out of this city as they have thrown us out of their restaurants!” But he didn’t. Not even once. His message was of peace and justice and his medium was of peaceful protest. No matter how much violence he and his people endured, he never returned even a single violent word for he knew that peace was the answer and that actions were just as important as words.
We are all called to be prophets In Second Vatican council document Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (which is the highest authoritative body in the Catholic Church), the Church reminds its people that all baptized people are, “in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ and they carry out for their own part the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world” (LG 31). It is not the responsibility of the priests and bishops alone to carry out the work of Christ in the world, it is first and foremost the work of all baptized Christians. We are in this together by virtue of our one baptism in Christ and our oneness in God.
So what does that mean for us on this day of celebrating one of God’s prophets? Are we called to start a movement that will change the course of human history for the sake of building up the Kingdom of God, like Dr. King? Well… yes… some of us are. And there is hardly a shortage of issues right in front of us today. Thousands of unborn children are denied their dignity and discarded every year. Refugees from all around the world are seeking asylum but only find hatred and closed doors. Many of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters live in fear of job termination, violent words and actions, or even state-sanctioned executions because of their sexual orientation. The richest one percent of the world controls nearly 40% of the world’s wealth, more than the bottom 95% combined. These are not signs of God’s Kingdom, they are grave injustices of our own. As baptized Christians, it is our right and duty, like Dr. King, to be a prophet for a more justice and holy world.
Obviously, though, not all of us have been called or gifted in the way that Dr. King was, and so it’s a bit unfair to expect everyone to champion an enormous issue like he did. But that doesn’t free us from being prophetic in our own world, albeit on a much smaller scale. The way that we act, treat others, use out time and even spend our money can be prophetic. In our daily lives and interactions, do we build up the Kingdom of God or do we tear it down? Do we act as a mouthpiece for God or do we silence the Word in our midst? Simple things like putting away our phones and giving someone our full attention is prophetic in our world; stopping someone from sharing gossip and changing the subject to something more constructive is prophetic in our world; being conscious of the products we buy, the companies we support, and the amount of money we spend so as to better benefit the poor is tremendously prophetic in our world.
When I look back on the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man that overcame injustice and oppression, spoke with courage and conviction, and eventually died for the cause that God had inspired in him, I am inspired to follow in his footsteps. I may never give a resounding speech or lead a march of hundreds of thousands, but I know that I am called just as he was to be a prophet in this world. It’s because of this that my prayer each day is not that I may accomplish great and wonderful things, but as my spiritual director taught me, “to be granted the eyes and ears of faith to see and hear the world as God does.” If we can do this, we will be like Dr. King in our own world, and what a world that would be.