At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood to address the annual gathering of the SCLC. Not long into his remarks a man rushed the stage and began hitting Dr. King in the face. Audience members would later recall that the sound of the man’s fists across King’s face made a loud popping noise. They would also reflect on their own astonishment as they watched the leader of the movement simply relax his shoulders, while letting his arms droop by his thighs. After a few moments, some of Dr. King’s associates rushed the assailant, while King instructed them not to strike the man.
King’s actions that day would galvanize the movement, as those who sat in the crowded auditorium saw a man instinctively practice the very non-violent philosophy he so eloquently preached. While he may have credited Gandhi as inspiration for his ideology, he looked more like the Nazarene who patiently endured the suffering of the cross. Martin Luther King emulated Jesus’ life, as he followed in the footsteps of the God-man who laid down his rights for the benefit of others.
Central to the gospel message is the un-American notion of laying down one’s rights. Standing on a mountain teaching the masses one day, Jesus said, “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:39-41). Roman law stipulated that at any given moment a soldier could come up to you and ask you to carry his pack, and you were obligated to carry it one mile. However, Jesus says that at the end of that mile don’t just wipe the sweat from your face, toss him the pack and exhale that you’ve fulfilled your rights. Go with him two miles. Even more troubling Jesus says that if your enemy slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other one as well. Again, not a really popular American sentiment, but what Jesus is hammering home is the necessity of laying down your rights. King must have had this whole bit about turning the other cheek at the forefront of his mind as he stood on that stage being popped by his enemy.
I have a hard time with this. Something in me rises up when I feel as if I’ve been wronged. You cut me off on the freeway I want to at least speed up to you, give you a look and let you know I’m not happy about it. My kid comes home with a bloody nose, everything within me convulses and screams, “Get him back”. I mean after all, lawyers make well into the six figures to ensure that people hold onto their rights.
What brought America to its knees wasn’t an army of people rioting in the streets, cursing and screaming at their abusers. To the contrary, it was little kids attacked by German Shepherds in the streets of 1963 Birmingham who refused to retaliate. It was the sight of what Billie Holiday described as strange fruit- lynched black bodies swinging from southern trees. What toppled old man Jim Crow was the thunderous rush of water from fire hydrants turned on peaceful marchers. Turning the other cheek, laying down rights is what allows me to sit in any seat on any bus in Memphis.
More than home ownership or drinking out of any water fountain I choose, it was Jesus who laid down his rights that paved the way for my salvation. Peter writes of Jesus, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (I Peter 2:23-24). In short, it was Jesus’ refusal to hold onto his rights that lead to my adoption into the family of God.
When I ease the grip on what is rightfully mine I don’t lose ground, I actually gain ground. I wonder how many marriages would be in a better place if both spouses would stop looking out for themselves, lay down their rights and seek the best in the other? This is the gospel. And it is this gospel that spawned the Civil Rights Movement which lead to the freedoms that I and generations of African American’s enjoy. For this I am forever grateful to Dr. King.