OWAAT January 14: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Psalms

We are nearing the end of our time in Psalms. I don’t know about you, but I have found our journey through them more exciting than I’d originally envisioned. I think that’s one of the benefits of reading through the Bible more slowly – being able to notice things one may not see when skimming through it in the effort to reach a daily reading goal.

Daily Bible readings:

January 14 – Psalm 142
January 15 – Psalm 143
January 16 – Psalm 144
January 17 – Psalm 145
January 18 – Psalm 146
January 19 – Psalm 147
January 20 – Psalm 148


This time during (or after, depending on your tradition) Epiphany comes the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. An amazing resource for learning more about all that MLK said and did is The King Center Archive, which provides an incredible array of the nearly one million documents that “are associated with the life of Martin Luther King Jr,” so you can read his own words and other primary sources. Check out what he had to say about the Psalms!

While most of us have evolved to the point of at least celebrating or commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work, we sometimes celebrate without much consideration of how we honor MLK and other martyrs for justice the rest of our year in our day-to-day lives, vocations, and ministries. While we certainly may celebrate him on a secular level, it is also important to remember and understand the great faith underlying his courageous work toward racial and economic justice. King’s expression of public faith and love reminds me of the  first image I have of Jesus comes from one of those Sunday School curriculum books in which Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan.

Rufus Burrow writes in Extremist for Love: Martin Luther King Jr., Man of Ideas and Nonviolent Social Action, “Unlike the Priest and the Levite who traveled down the curvaceous and dangerous Jericho road in the days of Jesus, who looked on a certain man who had been beaten and robbed and went on their ways as if they had seen nothing, a third man, a certain Samaritan, himself a member of an outcast group, stopped, dismounted from his animal, tended to the man’s wounds, and paid for his care at a local inn, promising to provide anything else that might be needed.” (p. 475) King understood the importance of individual AND societal transformation: “And yet King knew, as we must know today, that important as the actions of individual good Samaritans are, it is equally important that ‘the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life.’ The structures of society need to be embodied with and thoroughly infused with the radical ideal of what King called a ‘dangerous unselfishness,’ indeed, ‘an eternal, dangerous, and sometimes costly altruism.'” (p. 476)

Even as we celebrate MLK, there are those who memorialize him into docile irrelevance, falsely equating his love of peace and use of nonviolent methods with calls for passivity. Some of us would rather – and I must admit, it often seems easier to – talk about justice without understanding the methods and doing the work and actions of nonviolent resistance.


Joan Chittister’s excellent book The Radical Christian Life, a Year with Saint Benedict takes us on a day-by-day walk through the liturgical year with Benedict of Nursia. Chittister uses Benedict’s life, ethos, and practices as springboard for her powerful reflections on what it means to live a radical Christian life. As she puts it, “Christians, serious seekers, must now choose either to retire from this fray into some paradise of marshmallow pieties where they can massage away the questions of time, the injustice of the age, with spiritual nosegays and protests of powerlessness–where they can live like pious moles in the heart of a twisted world and call that travesty peace and ‘religion’–or they can gather their strength for the struggle it will take to bring this world closer to the reign of God now.” (p. ix)

Chittister reflects on humility as it applies to Benedict’s Rule of Life: “Humility is about learning your place in the universe, about not making either yourselves or your nation anybody’s god. It is about realizing that we are all equal players in a common project called life. Learning like that can change your politics. It will certainly change your humanity – your soul. In a culture that hoards money and titles and power and prestige like gold, Benedict makes the keystone value of his rule of life a chapter on humility that was written for Roman men in a society that valued machoism, power, and independence at least as much as ours.” (p. xxii)

How is your own Rule of Life coming on? Have you completed it? If you haven’t, a reminder that the CS Lewis Institute, “A Personal Rule of Life” is helpful in its creation. Please read it and experiment with the composition of your rule of life – and share any insights you have from doing this activity! Has it been easy to create and implement, or not? Where are your joys and challenges with this exercise?


This weekend and Monday, January 15, you may find many celebrations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy. These are important celebrations, and I would encourage you to be a part of one. However, if we limit our honoring of the Rev. Dr. King to our celebrations of his birthday, we do him and the civil rights movement of the 1960s grave injustice – for the same MLK our society often holds up as a paradigm of color-blind tolerance (his dream that the content of our characters, rather than skin color, would determine our fates and life outcomes), also brought us scathing condemnations of those who unilaterally condemn violence in justice movements and of those who value order over authentic peace, particularly in “The Other America” speech given at Stanford University in 1967:

“… [I]t is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”

What will you do to not only celebrate and study the life and faith-based action of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but also continue his unfinished work of creating the Beloved Community using direct nonviolent action?

Check the Think! Pray! Act! calendar for ideas and things to do.

Find your local faith- or congregation-based community organizing network/organization and participate in their work and actions. Here are links to the major faith-based community organizing networks and their local affiliate organizations:

DART – Direct Action and Research Training Center


IAF – Industrial Areas Foundation

IVP – InterValley Project

PICO – People Improving Communities through Organizing

What’s going on in your living of the Gospel? Let us know in the comments, in our e-mail discussion group, or on social media.


“Instructions for Developing a Personal Rule of Life.” CS Lewis Institute, n.d. http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/338

Benedict of Nursia. Benedict’s Rule. Worcester, PA: Christian History Institute, 2017. https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/benedicts-rule

Burrow, Rufus. Extremist for Love: Martin Luther King Jr., Man of Ideas and Nonviolent Social Action. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.

Chittister, Joan. The Radical Christian Life: A Year with Saint Benedict. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2011.

King, Jr., Martin Luther. “The Archive | The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (Search Results for: ‘Psalm’).” The King Center, n.d. http://thekingcenter.org/archive/list?body_value=psalm.

King, Jr., Martin Luther, “The Other America” (Stanford University, April 4, 1967), http://www.crmvet.org/docs/otheram.htm.