Prophets are hard.

Prophets don’t come to us to make us feel better about ourselves, to tell us to affirm our inner goodness, or to grant us wishes like a Santa-Clause.

No, prophets come to hold up a mirror to our society and our hearts, and let us see how we have fallen away from God, how we are living unjustly. They tell us that unless we repent now, the judgment of the Lord is upon us.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was an American prophet in the old Biblical sense, a prophet from the black church tradition of love and justice who held a mirror to a society that was betraying its own lofty ideals. Today we hold up Dr. King in honor, yet we forget about the challenges that he faced in his time, challenges from the political establishment, challenges from the white church, and even challenges from the black church that questioned his engagement with the peace movement and the Vietnam War. It is no easy task to be a prophet, and you have to listen to Martin’s voice to hear the hardship he endured:

And I don’t mind telling you this morning that sometimes I feel discouraged. I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I move through Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama, I feel discouraged. Living every day under the threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticisms, even from Negroes, I feel discouraged sometimes. Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work’s in vain. But then the holy spirit revives my soul again.

We have an uneasy time with prophets, with prophetic figures who challenge us spiritually, morally, religiously and politically. Martin, as great as he was, kept moving, kept growing, kept absorbing insights, and kept expanding the scope of his vision. Firmly rooted in the tradition of the black church, Martin expanded his struggle from the cause of racial justice to a broader struggle against what he came to call in the Riverside Church speech the “giant triplet” of evil: racism, materialism and militarism. So if Martin were with us today, what would he have to say to us?

Omid Safi: What Would Martin Say Now?

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