The challenge of MLK Day

By Bishop Joseph E. Pennell, Jr., Special Contributor…

I was a pastor in Memphis, Tenn., when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. The morning after he was gunned down I marched with a group of clergy and laity to the office of Mayor Henry Loeb with the hope that he would use his influence to honor the request of the sanitation workers. Over the years I have found that it is not difficult to remember the events of those days but it is also easy to forget the primary message of Dr. King. With many things in life we can have the experience and forget the meaning.

Martin Luther King Day should remind us that not all of God’s children have learned how to live peacefully with one another. It should also call us to remember how love and only love has the power to transcend our differences so that we might be made one.  Let us not forget what Dr. King said in his sermon titled “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.” With eloquence he preached, “In a world depending on force, coercive tyranny, and bloody violence, you are challenged to follow the way of love.”  That yet remains our challenge.

In these difficult times of social upheaval, cultural differences, globalization, polarization, unpredictable violence, regressive racism, secular humanism and economic stress the fires of love need to burn with intensity and brightness in the hearts of humankind. Living by what love requires is the only thing that can save the world.

A broken, divided and suffering humanity has the right to expect something of people of all faiths. They are correct in expecting religious people to show the world how people can work together towards the noble goal of a justice and peace that is rooted in love. Who will demonstrate how to love if persons of faith fail to ignite the flame? This is the responsibility of all religions including Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

It is love that measures the stature of individuals, nations and religions. True worth is not calibrated by the acquisition of more and more. The more we love the more important we are. There is nothing smaller than a person wrapped up in himself or herself. Teaching all people how to create a social order based on love for others is the high and difficult calling of those who profess to reflect on life from the vantage point of faith. If we, as religious people, fail to love and to teach others how to love we will fail in all things. Or, as St. Paul wrote, “now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love”.

Love for neighbor is rooted in our freedom. God has so created us that we have the freedom to do that which is loving or that which is evil. We are not puppets on a string. God’s love grants human freedom. We are free to sin or we are free to labor for the common good. Just after the recent massacre at the school in Newtown, a well-intentioned person asked me how a loving God could allow such brutality. The question was simply: “How could God let that happen?”  Perhaps God is asking the same question of us: “How could you let that happen?” In my opinion, the murdering of those children made God cry.

On MLK Day, I am aware that there are countless people of faith who are challenging others to begin a new era of reconciliation by bringing people together across racial, religious, political and cultural divisions. As a pastor and a teacher, I have experienced many clergy and laity whose hearts long for peace, justice and a more grace-filled world. To do no harm and to love God by loving others is the altitudinous and towering calling of all persons who profess to live by faith and values.

Retired UM Bishop Pennel is professor for pastoral leadership at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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