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Look Back | MLK Jr.: Effective Preacher, Powerful Poet

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Editor’s note: This article first appeared on Jan. 15, 2007. James L. Evans was pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Alabama at the time of publication. It is republished today for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend, as King remains a significant model for prophetic preaching and translating belief into tangible action that seeks to shape public policy and laws for the common good.

In his elegant little book, “Finally Comes the Poet,” Walter Brueggemann writes that the task of the preacher is to be “a voice that shatters settled reality and evokes new possibilities.”

If he is right about that, then no preacher in the last century has been more effective than Martin Luther King Jr.

His words helped shatter the settled reality of segregation. He also gave voice to the possibility of what he called the “beloved community.”

King assaulted the settled reality of segregation with words bearing the full force of biblical understanding and prophetic courage.

For example, when we heard him say, “Segregation is the adultery of an illicit intercourse between injustice and immorality.”

Or this devastating insight about prejudice: “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

His powerful words defined for a generation how faith is able to confront the powers and bring about real change.

Of course, the settled reality of segregation did not yield quietly to the pleas of the preacher. It fought back with a fierceness that left many bloody and beaten.

But King was not drawn into the violence. Instead, he echoed the teaching of Jesus: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

Of the many disappointments that accompanied King’s efforts, the deepest and most painful came from fellow Christian ministers who failed to support the civil rights movement.

Of them, King wrote, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

He was no starry-eyed idealist. He was not duped by some pie-in-the-sky theology. “All progress is precarious,” he said, “and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.”

And King knew that his vision of a beloved community was dangerous and difficult.

But he believed in it and spoke about it with passionate eloquence, his words evoking new possibilities then and now.

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

And, of course, these most memorable of his words: “Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

The great American poet Walt Whitman once wrote, “After the seas are all crossed, after the great captains and engineers have accomplished their work, after the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist, finally shall come the poet worthy of that name, the true son of God shall come singing his songs.”

We have been visited by such a poet. And his words helped shatter a settled reality of cruelty and hate. But his words did so much more.

The poet also helped us see a glimpse of what could be. In his vision of the beloved community, we see the hope of a new possibility.

James L. Evans

James L. Evans is a retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published 5 books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies" (Abingdon Press (2011).