Holding Fast to Love and Justice—In Celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.

To mark and celebrate the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is to mark and celebrate something that is very important to the God who created us all—love and justice held together in beautiful, creative, messy tension.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness (or mercy), and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 30:18)

“But as for you, return to your God, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.” (Hosea 12:6)

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words

The life of Dr. King is a powerful illustration of what it looks like when a person is committed to wrestling with some of life’s most dichotomous elements—love and justice, being and doing, prayerful waiting and decisive, loving action in the world—until they come together as an integrated whole. For Dr. King, it was never love or justice. It was never prayer or action— being in God or doing something for God. It was never missional engagement with the problems of the world or contemplation of the presence of God within. It was both. All the time. He was profoundly non-dualistic in this regard. “Life at its best,” he believed, “is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony.”

As we celebrate the life and work of Dr. King, it is important to keep in mind that it was King’s keen spiritual insight and attunement with the heart of God that made it possible for him to know what many Christians and other well-meaning individuals had somehow avoided knowing—that racism and racial injustice are an offense to the heart of God and contradict the essence of the Gospel.  “For there is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free…male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.” (Galatians 3:28)

The soul force to which he often referred was the “force” of God-directed action that was motivated by love, emerging from the soul of a person who was in touch with the Spirit of God witnessing with their spirit about things that are true. “To our bitterest opponents we say: We shall meet your physical force with soul force.  Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you… One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves.  We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

Celebrating Spiritual Activism

To mark and celebrate Dr. King’s life is also to mark the deep spirituality out of which his passion for justice emerged, the same spirituality that sustained him through the challenges of his fight for justice. It was strength of soul that made it possible for King to live within the paradoxes inherent in adopting and maintaining a non-violent approach to confronting evil. “Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system…” This is just not easy to do and it was King’s spirituality that kept his activism grounded in such radical truth.  Without strength of soul it would have been impossible for him to live these truths himself, let alone lead others in it!

King’s encounters with God in times of prayer kept him in the game. His spiritual vitality was a powerful undercurrent that carried him beyond fear and concern for his own survival to the fulfillment of God’s purposes for him in his own generation.  The day before his assassination, he spoke passionately about being strengthened by what can only be described as a mystical experience of “going to the mountain” and gaining a spiritual perspective on his life and the cause he was championing. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” he thundered, “but it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

“And I don’t mind.”

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned with that now.  I just want to do God’s will. And he allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.”

“I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And I’m so happy tonight! I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man!  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

Prayer that Leads to Action, Action that Leads to Prayer

King’s leadership in the fight for racial justice was more than mere human activism; it was spiritual activism—which can be understood as partnering with God in any and all attempts to bring transformative justice to the world. He understood his leadership in this fight to be his destiny—a destiny that history and God himself had thrust upon him. His actions were an out-pouring of God’s love for all God’s children through the life of one who was willing to step up and step into the powerful flow of God’s purposes. And that action, which was met with severe disagreement and violent opposition, drove him to sink his roots deeper into the ground of his being which was God himself.

King knew that God and God alone gives us the interior resources to bear the burdens and tribulations of life, especially those that come as we fulfill our call to serve others and to stand for what is right in this world. Had he not known how to move from action back into prayer—how to tap into a deeper Source than mere human activism—we would have lost him to fear and discouragement; the forces of this particular evil would have prevailed, at least for a little while longer. In a sermon entitled Our God is Able, King tells a very personal story of how an intimate encounter with God sustained him in the darkest hour of his fight for freedom and equality. When he began receiving death threats just before the Montgomery bus protest, he came to the end of his own inner resources and almost gave into fear. But it was an encounter with God at his kitchen table that empowered him to continue saying yes to his calling:

“At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth.  God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears passed from me.  My uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything.  The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.”

King’s choice to orient himself towards God in the midst of the resistance his action had stirred up became a pivotal moment in his life as a leader. It solidified his calling, transformed his fear into a deep sense of calm, and gave him the strength to go on.  Were it not for his full engagement in the fight for justice and his grounded-ness in the life of prayer, he might never have had the kind of encounter with God that transformed him in the deepest level of his being.

Apostle of Love and Action

Martin Luther King, Jr. was an apostle of love and action, as Coretta Scott King described him in her forward to the collection of sermons contained in his book Strength to Love. He believed that every genuine expression of love grows out of consistent and total surrender to God and that every action we take in the world must be motivated by love—the most durable power in the world. At the heart of his message was the conviction that love is the creative force exemplified in the life of Christ and it is the most potent instrument available in the human quest for peace and security. In fact, he believed that the ability to love our enemies was an absolute necessity for our survival.

Most importantly, King believed that God is with us in our quest for justice. In his sermon Pilgrimage to Nonviolence he says, “God has been profoundly real to me in recent years. In the midst of outer dangers I have felt an inner calm. In the midst of lonely days and dreary nights I have heard an inner voice saying, ‘Lo, I will be with you.’ When the chains of fear and the manacles of frustration have all but stymied my efforts, I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship.”

A Powerful Pulse

King’s soul was nourished and strengthened by a powerful pulse: his intimate connection with God (prayer) propelled him to courageous and unreserved engagement with the brokenness of the world (action). And action in the world always drove him back to prayer and radical surrender to God.  This is the very heart of mysticism—the belief that God is real, that God can be encountered in the depths of one’s being, and that our human existence can be radically oriented and responsive to that Presence.

By this definition, all the great ones of our faith were mystics.  Mysticism is Moses hearing God’s voice in the wilderness and pushing through all manner of fear and resistance to do that thing he was convinced he could not do because God had called him to do.  It is Elijah on Mt. Horeb seeking a real encounter with God before returning to his call to be a prophet.  It is Paul getting knocked off his horse on the Damascus road and then sitting in silence for three days until God told him what to do next.  It is Peter seeing the vision of the unclean animals and changing the trajectory of his whole life to preach salvation to the Gentiles. It is John caught up in the spirit on the isle of Patmos receiving the vision that would become the book of Revelation.

This mystical element of our faith invites us into a contemplative stance—being present to the One who is always present with us and being radically responsive  to that Presence. As Richard Rohr writes, “True contemplatives are paradoxically risk-takers and reformists, precisely because they have no private agendas, jobs or securities to maintain.  Their security and identity is founded in God and not in being right, being paid by the church or looking for promotion in people’s eyes. These alone can move beyond self-interest and fear to do God’s necessary work.”

And what is the outcome of a life lived in this kind of powerful pulse?  Love.  Truth. Justice. Courage. Vision.  Staying Power. And action.  Contemplative action or spiritual activism, to be exact.

Where the Real Action Is

As it turns out, contemplation is where the real action is spiritually speaking. It is action that emerges from real encounters with God.  It is doing what God calls us to do when he calls us to do it—no matter how afraid or ill-equipped we might feel. Contemplative action (or spiritual activism) is the willingness to go beyond being primarily concerned for our own safety and survival to the place where we know our real life is hidden with Christ in God no matter what happens to our physical life.

Contemplative action is doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right Spirit, completely given over to a Power that is beyond our own—even, and perhaps most especially, when the risks are very great. This kind of action is impossible without being radically in touch with the Source of our life through prayer and contemplation. And this kind of prayer is not possible until we stop hesitating and give in to the authority of an invisible God as it relates to our life in this world.

Contemplative action is not about the absence of fear; it is the courage to look fear in face and master it through love. King was often very much afraid but he chose courage which he defined as “the power of life to affirm itself in spite of life’s ambiguities.  This requires the exercise of a creative will that enables us to hew out a stone of hope from a mountain of despair.”

This kind of action is not about our natural preferences.  As King once said, “I don’t march because I like it.  I march because I must.” Real action is not about our own personal safety. After King went public with his convictions, he was never safe again from a human point of view. Real action is not about what seems humanly possible. It is about saying yes to the God with whom all things are possible. “Neither God nor man will individually bring the world’s salvation. Rather, both man and God, made one in a marvelous unity of purpose through an overflowing love as the free gift of Himself on the part of God and by perfect obedience and receptivity on the part of man, can transform the old into the new.” (italics mine)

An Integrated Life

As we consider the possibility of living lives that fully integrate love and justice, being and doing, prayer and action, it is good for us to learn from a man who had a God-given dream but didn’t keep it to himself for his own private inspirations.  He emerged from prayer to describe that dream to the rest of us in ways that enabled us to see it and taste it and feel it.

It is good for us to emulate a man who not only dreamed dreams and saw visions but also had a God-honoring plan for carrying them out. It is good for us to be challenged and inspired by a man who made a difference in our world through contemplative action—that is, action that emerges from that place where God’s spirit witnesses with our spirits about things that are true and empowers us to take right action in the world. For the sake of all God’s children.


Where are you most challenged in holding love and justice together in fruitful synergy? How is God meeting you and strengthening you in the midst of this challenge? 

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©Ruth Haley Barton, 2020. This article is not to be reproduced without permission. All sermon quotations are taken from Strength to Love, Martin Luther King, Jr. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963)

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest (Oct 2022).
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Thank you Ruth for this profound reflection on MLK and for your insights that not only help me to so appreciate him, but aspire to lean into mysticism and the powerful ,pulse of an integrated life. I look forward to seeing you in a few weeks at the ECO National Gathering!

I’m looking forward to it too!

It’s amazing that you so totally embrace and understand the life and message of a Black man that so many Christians have run from for 60 years. Only God could so effectively speak thru you to my heart as a Black man searching for why King’s dream has created so many nightmare episodes over these last 10 years. Could it be that African-Americans forgot or perhaps never knew the deep mystical spirituality of King’s message and so I embrace an angry activism devoid of Christ. Or, Could it be that white folks having finally surrendered to a brief moment of reconciliation sentimentality and are now even more convinced that injustice and all the -isms are all a media manifestation designed to prevent America’s greatness? My greatest joy on this day is that your words show that America does indeed have a public holiday that will forever points human beings to the amazing cruciform love of God in Christ. YAY Ruth!

So grateful to be on the journey with you, Ray. Your heart, your questions, your comments mean more than I can say. Please, God, spare us from angry activism devoid of Christ and also spare us from white sentimentality devoid of action!

Thank you RUTH for your words of deep truth. It was an encouragement to my soul to listen to the Voice of God and respond faithfully to His Voice of Love.
Thank you. Blessings to you and over your listening heart.
Darlene H.

Thank you Ruth, for this reminder of a life of surrender.

Thanks Ruth. I desire to be a contemplative activist, thanks for the call to both contemplative practices and practicing justice.

How tragic that, all to often, the modern church has a bifurcated approach to the issues of, shall we say, “ethical holiness” (justice, action, etc.) and “liturgical holiness” (worship, prayer, etc.). As you so eloquently described, Dr. King’s life is a beautiful example of the necessary tension between these two seemingly opposite extremes. May our action lead us to pray and our praying lead us to acting!

Thank you, Ruth. May the Lord be with you!

Oh God, may it be so!

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