Don't Waste Martin Luther King Weekend

Monday is Martin Luther King day. I encourage all pastors and Sunday School teachers to make something of it this weekend. It may be too late to preach on racial and ethnic issues, if you have not already planned to. But it is not too late, if you read this on Saturday, to plan to simply take note of the day and speak a word of exhortation to your people concerning their hearts in matters of race and ethnicity. None of us. None of us is without need for help in the purification of our hearts in the way we feel and think about other ethnic groups. Your people need help.

The point of this weekend is not to celebrate all that MLK was. You need not belabor his sins. The point is to lift up some magnificent things he stood for and some necessary and amazing achievements of the civil rights era in which he was a key leader. We are Christians and can see these things in the light of providence and the gospel. Let everything point to Christ and him crucified. Consider Revelation 5:9 if you wonder whether ethnic diversity and ethnic harmony are Jesus-blood issues.

All you have to do to find some good word from MLK is Google his name. His "I have a dream" speech has some powerful lines. He dreams that some day his children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character." That cry is as important today globally and locally as it was in 1963.

In my judgment the "I have a dream" speech was not the apex of King's eloquence. That is reserved for certain passages in "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" (April 16, 1963). Here is the most powerful word from King I have ever read:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dart of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six- year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

You need not have all the answers. You need not be democrat or republican. You need not think things are as bad as they were or as good as they could be. What you need to do is press the issue of ethnic ill-will on the consciences of your people in the name of Jesus, who came to us when we were more alien to him than anyone has ever been to us.

God give you courage and grace.

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.