Jesus and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in a world of daunting racial oppression. Jesus, a Jew from Galilee, represented a marginalised section of society within the Roman Empire. The Jewish people knew well the struggles of a fading identity and discrimination in a system that stripped them of any power, and it wasn’t coincidental that God sent his son in the form of a powerless Jew rather than a powerful Roman. Additionally, Jesus and his family were poor. When making a sacrifice at the Temple, Jesus’ family “offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’” (Luke 2:24). A stroll over to Leviticus 5:7, 11 remind us that the turtledove and pigeon are sacrifices for the poor, i.e. those who “cannot afford a sheep.” In like fashion, both Matthew and Luke present to us a homeless Jesus whose itinerant ministry depended solely upon the hospitality of others (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58). In the fierce war of dominance, Jesus grew up under the shadow of the Empire, which aimed to subjugate his people and keep them poor. He felt the discrimination of being labelled as inferior stock. Dr. King knew the struggles of Jesus well. His American context daily reminded him of his powerlessness in a system rigged for White benefit. The poverty of his people further perpetuated this system.

In any system of oppression, fight or flight are two common responses. Prior to Jesus, the oppression of the Jewish people was met by varied biblical and cultural responses. The tradition of Daniel reminds us that oppressive systems are accountable to God and should be questioned, though not resisted violently. The book of Esther and the Joseph story (Gen 41:37-56; cf. 50:26) provide a background for assimilating and submitting to oppressive systems. Moreover, both Ezra and Nehemiah quietly and passively—i.e. non-violently—reject their Persian overlords (cf. Ezra 9:7). Lastly, the Maccabees (a non-canonical text) recount the activities of Judas Maccabeus, a Galilean zealot who led a Jewish revolt against his Greek oppressors. This last tradition is notably the history of Galilee, Jesus’ hometown. These OT stories were told and retold and set the standard for faithful Jewish living in a world of oppressors.

Similar to Jesus’ situation, the Civil Rights Movement was not birthed in singularity, and it would be wrong to think all blacks shared the same ideologies. For example, the Black Power movement had aims towards Black Nationalism and separatism while Malcolm X further encouraged blacks to defend themselves “by any means necessary.”[1] The practice of non-violent resistance adopted by Dr. King was one response to his White oppressors among numerous others. Both Jesus and Dr. King sought paths of non-violent action though culturally steeped in traditions opposed to them. They saw progress in the unpopular notions of fighting evil with good and combating hatred with love. Today we honor Dr. King’s birth, but also his contribution to humanity, for his progression of an ideology that was met with equal aversion in the time of Jesus, and for his steadfastness in the face of adversity. May we honour his name through non-violent involvement as we navigate the world that still fumes with the stench of racism and oppression, and continues to proscribe casting out evil with evil. May we “decide to stick with love” as “Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

 

[1] Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary (Malcolm X Speeches & Writings), (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1992).