Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, commemorating what would have been his 85th birthday. In honor of Dr. King, I am remembering my seminary days when I took a class called, "The African American Experience in Social Ethics." Our professor, commenting on the extensive letters, sermons, and speeches of MLK, suggested to us, "If they ever reopen the cannon of the Holy Bible, they should put in the Book of King."
This might sound blasphemous to Christians who view biblical texts through an age-old doctrinal mantra: "The Bible is either sufficient or it is not." The Bible might be sufficient in aspects of guiding one's life toward the love of self and neighbor, but when sufficiency is supplanted by the justification of one's own prejudices and fears, the scriptures become hijacked by cultural self-interests and are rendered insufficient for the ongoing handiwork of God. King called this handiwork "God's will," and he articulated that will as one of justice, equality and freedom for all people.
King saw the Bible being manipulated to elevate hatred. Liberating those sacred texts from the arsenal of oppression, he used biblical teachings to speak out against injustice. In 1956, just six days before the Supreme Court ruled against Alabama's bus segregation laws, King preached in Montgomery and paraphrased 1 John 4 by saying, "He who loves is a participant in the being of God. He who hates does not know God."
The words of 1 John 4 certainly appear in the Bible, but it is only when rearticulated by the likes of MLK and lived out by many that those allegedly sufficient words are liberated from beneath the shadows of our human self-absorption, which leads us to fear one another in the name of religious correctness that we misunderstand as God's will.
In Matthew 5, Jesus preaches, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." This sounds sufficient until King, a follower of Jesus, writes an article in the Christian Century magazine in 1957 stating, "True peace is not merely the absence of some negative force -- tension, confusion or war; it is the presence of some positive force -- justice, good will and brotherhood." Freed from the belief that being a peacemaker means abstaining from rocking the boat of society's status quo, we discover that peacemaking means infusing that abstinent vacuum with the virtues of justice, good will, and servanthood.
And let us not forget that in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, King quoted the Hebrew Scriptures, and suddenly the ancient words "let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream" became the sacred goal for all human beings to strive for together, regardless of the color of our skins.
Perhaps a Book of King would serve the canon of the Bible well, giving further credence to God's will for justice, equality and freedom for all in our time. But if they were to reopen the canon, I would suggest inserting King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Just as Paul's letters explain his context and provide instructions for Christians of his day, King's letter reveals an eye-opening context and gives timeless instructions for all who strive for the ongoing handiwork of God.
Context: Eight prominent Alabama clergymen, all white, published an open letter that called on King to allow the battle for integration to continue in the local and federal courts, and warned that King's nonviolent resistance would cause civil disturbances, in essence insisting that now was not the time. Instruction: Writing a letter back to the clergymen, King asserted that their shared Christian faith was at the heart of the African-American struggle for justice, equality and freedom by asking the rhetorical question, "When will it be time?" Lesson: Until all of us are free, none of us are free; and now is always the time to make that struggle a shared reality for all people. Anything less is insufficient.
In my last semester of seminary, our class of aspiring ministers got to talking about the supposed issue of whether to allow the full participation of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church. One of my peers leaned back in his chair, folded his arms over his chest and said, "I just don't think it's time." Remembering King's words, I asked, "When will it be time?"
These days, the Bible is sufficient in some circles for hating Muslims, dismissing our undocumented neighbors as illegal and marginalizing gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered people. So long as the words of our Holy Scriptures are used as a weapon to justify fear and not as a guide toward our love of one another, we might do well to add the words of King. But until the sacred words that inform our faith are freed from all temptations to utilize them for the oppression of another, we need more than just a Book of King.
In our congregation, when we read from the Bible, the reader says, "The Word of God for the people of God," and the people respond, "God is still speaking. Thanks be to God!" Just as God's handiwork of justice, equality and freedom spoke through King's life, surely that will of God can speak through your life in ongoing words and actions today and every day.
• The Rev. Dan De Leon is the pastor of Friends Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, College Station.