Richard Lischer of Duke Divinity School to Preach About Martin Luther King, Jr., at Memorial Church at Harvard on Sunday

Courtesy of Harvard University Archives/UAV 605 V 127 This contact sheet captures Martin Luther King Jr.'s January 1965 visit to the Memorial Church to deliver a speech.
Courtesy of Harvard University Archives/UAV 605 V 127
This contact sheet captures Martin Luther King Jr.’s January 1965 visit to the Memorial Church to deliver a speech.

The man who literally wrote the book on the preaching of Martin Luther King Jr. will himself preach about the civil rights leader during Sunday’s sermon at the Memorial Church. His homily will come a day before the traditional Monday holiday commemorating King, who was assassinated in 1968.

Richard Lischer of Duke Divinity School is a professor of preaching and a frequent commentator on religion for The New York Times and National Public Radio. The onetime Lutheran pastor is the author of “The Preacher King” (1995), described by the author as “a rational account of King’s prowess as a speaker and preacher of the gospel.”

The Atlanta-born King was the son and grandson of preachers, and the great-grandson of a slave exhorter, who preached to those without freedom. His church oratory often had such lyric power, Lischer has written, that it is best understood when printed as a poem. “I don’t march ’cause I like it,” King said in a sermon shortly before his death, part of which Lischer once rendered as a poem:

I march because I must
And because I’m a man
And because I’m a child of God.

“He was God’s trombone,” the professor wrote of King, “a true prophet” who harnessed on behalf of social justice “the black church’s joy in the performed word.” For 13 years on the public stage, King combined political acumen and New Testament rhetoric in an American social struggle so riven with racial hatred that it is difficult to imagine today.

At the heart of King’s preaching was “the weapon of love,” the title of Lischer’s sermon this Sunday. King used the phrase early in his preaching, said Lischer by phone, promising that his social-justice movement would not use violence. Instead, it would use agape, a classical Greek word that means unconditional love. In Christian terms, King said, that should extend to all humankind. The concept involved more than friendship (philia), he preached in sermons including one at Harvard in 1965, and it was not just sexual love (eros) either.

“If you think love is just a feeling,” said Lischer, “you’re really dealing with an extremely stunted view” of what King saw as humans’ need for a godly love of one another.

“His memory lasts,” said Lischer, “and will last for a very long time because he set a very high mark for our country and for humanity as a whole.” But King “spoke a lot less about love” in the last few years of his life, he added, and more about the fate of those who “obey the voice of love,” toward a redemption that plays out in social terms. Fundamentally, said Lischer, King was a preacher and had a “stigmatic confidence in conversion, change, (and) the human heart.”

But King was also an angry man, Lischer said, an overlooked side of this famously peaceful preacher. Late in his short life, he turned away from an increasing entrée to the corridors of power and from a smooth alliance with Christian liberals. Instead, he embraced anti-war sentiments, along with an edgy passion for the economically oppressed, no matter what their race.

Journalist David Halberstam once called King “the angriest man in America,” said Lischer, and the preacher by today’s standards could be “as angry as any Jeremiah Wright.” (Wright, a Chicago pastor and onetime friend of Barack Obama, was the subject of intense media scrutiny in 2008 for angry sermons that included what critics cited as racially divisive comments.)

At the same time, King always believed in that “weapon of love,” insisting that anger “doesn’t need to dissolve into violence and despair,” said Lischer. King told black audiences in particular that “there is a way to win your freedom and not lose your soul.”

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Source: Harvard News | Corydon Ireland

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