MLK and Making the Right Metrics

Thousands of years ago God addressed King Josiah’s son, Shallum, through the prophet Jeremiah.

“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages, who says, “I will build myself a great house with spacious upper rooms,’ who cuts windows for it, paneling it with cedar and painting it with vermillion. Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and the needy, then it was well. Is not this to know me? declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 22:13-16).

For a lot of people, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is just a day out of work or school. This is tragic because it is so much more than a holiday. It’s an opportunity to celebrate a man who lived out these words of Jeremiah 22 with his own prophetic fire and life. At the height of his platform, most would argue that America was doing well. The economy was strong and many Americans were enjoying immense prosperity. Depending on your metrics, one could argue that life in America was great.

And yet, there were millions of people who could not vote or enter certain restaurants or stores without violent opposition. Gross disparities in education affected thousands of children. Laws were not in place to provide equitable housing and wages, or even to protect people from being lynched.

Dr. King recognized this vacuous hole of justice and challenged the powers in the land. He understood that the metrics of a nation’s health and strength were not based upon the economy or its military prowess but founded upon how it cared for the poor and the needy. In his Nobel Peace prize address he stated, “The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for the ‘least of these.’”

Our children and we need this

According to psychologist Jean M. Twenge in her book, iGen, our current teenagers are on pace to be “the least religious generation in U.S. history.” As of 2015, only 28% of high school seniors in this country indicated that they attended church. Currently 33% of our young adults claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. Our young people are deserting in droves and there does not seem to be an end in sight. Dr. Twenge points out that the reasons for this are myriad, but many of our youth see no connection between what happens in church and their world outside it. A survey of 18 to 24 year olds in 2012 revealed that the majority of them felt that Christianity was anti-gay, judgmental, and hypocritical. In the words of David Kinnaman, the church has become “famous for what we oppose, rather than who we are for.”

Everyone who has youth or works with them should allow this info to soak deep inside. In an age where many churches are working to attract young people through better music, programs, climbing walls, apologetics classes, and energetic youth pastors, we are still witnessing our young people becoming disenchanted with the faith. There are obviously many reasons for this, but we must admit that one of the culprits for this defection is due in large part to the fact that many of our youth have not experienced authentic Christianity. The impressive facilities and vibrant youth programs are not the magnets keeping our kids. Nor are the apologetic courses or the curriculums that focus on morality in an age of moral decline.

Notice back in Jeremiah 22 where God told His people that a focus on justice, the poor, and the oppressed was evidence that they “knew Him.” This is astounding.

In large part, the validation that we have a relationship with Christ is that we emulate His life through deeds of compassion and justice in this broken world. The very crux of Jesus’ mission on earth was to liberate the poor and the oppressed (Luke 4:18-20). It stands to reason that if we want our kids to fall in love with Jesus, and stay the course, then we should introduce them to legitimate ways to add hands and feet to what they already believe.

The life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are a gift to us. His holiday is an opportunity to point our children and us to a man who relentlessly followed Jesus and who stood up for the poor and oppressed until it cost him his life. In the process, he revealed to the world that he knew God and that following him anywhere was worth it. Studying and emulating his words, his ways, and his life will pay extraordinary dividends in pointing all of us to Jesus.

Ben Sciacca currently serves as the Director of Leadership Development for Desire Street Ministries ( Ben has been ministering and living in under-resourced communities for almost 20 years. He writes and speaks about the gospel and social justice. His latest book is Meals from Mars: A Parable of Prejudice and Providence. He and his wife and four children live in Birmingham, Alabama. You can follow him @iamJudahBen.  

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