Martin Luther King Jr. left issues for the 21st century
Many preachers are in politics these days, but most of them have a different agenda from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
They want to impose their beliefs and standards of personal conduct on others. No doubt many believe they are doing God's work, but too many ignore the themes of social justice that made Dr. King such a great preacher.
Today's King holiday reminds us that Dr. King was a leader for black civil rights, which is still very much an unfinished cause. The Associated Press points out that blacks' median annual income was only 81 percent of whites' in 2003. That's almost double the 43 percent figure in 1955, when Rosa Parks touched off the Montgomery bus boycott and the civil rights movement, but it's not equality. It shows just one way that our society still discriminates by race.
Racial equality, however, was not Dr. King's only cause. When he was murdered in 1968, he was helping striking Memphis garbage workers and looking forward to a poor people's march on Washington.
In his book "Strength to Love," Dr. King offered "Paul's Letter to American Christians." It urged them to reject communism but "work within the framework of democracy to bring about a better distribution of wealth."
"You must use your powerful economic resources to eliminate poverty from the earth," he wrote in an imaginary epistle from the Apostle Paul. "God never intended one people to live in superfluous and inordinate wealth, while others know only deadening poverty. God wants all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe 'enough and to spare' for that purpose."
In Time magazine last week, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was a King associate, responded to the question of what things would be like if Dr. King were alive today.
Mr. Lewis said Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, if he had also lived and had become president, could have achieved more economic justice and a better sense of community. Dr. King would be a stronger force than ever for peace and reconciliation, Mr. Lewis said.
"We wouldn't have so many people still left behind," he said. "There wouldn't be so much poverty and hunger. And we probably would have some type of comprehensive health-care campaign for all our citizens."
The memory of a 20th-century hero raises those issues for the 21st century.