Dr. King and the Hope that Purifies

Post by Kathleen Schwab

All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. (1 John 3:3)

In looking at how to build spirituality that stands the test of time, I looked for a spiritual hero, and decided on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although during his lifetime both black and white clergymen opposed his movement, history vindicated both Dr. King’s message and his methods. Today almost no one disagrees with his goal of a society where children of different races can “freely join hands,” and this goal, considered by many of Dr. King’s contemporaries to be simply impossible, is now taken for granted. These days, his approach of forgiveness and nonviolent resistance is universally praised.

How did Dr. King go from being opposed by most Christian leaders to being held up as an example? So many people missed the truth of Civil Rights, while he saw it. I think the  critical piece to this puzzle is hope. The First Epistle of John 3:3 says “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” If John hadn’t pointed this out, I don’t think the purifying nature of hope would have occurred to me. The fires of suffering immediately spring to mind when I think of purifying agents; something as positive and gentle as hope doesn’t.

But what else can keep a person committed to the highest standards of behavior than a conviction that good things are ahead? No discipline can match hope, because discipline, after all, involves making yourself do something you don’t want to do. Hope turns the sinful nature inside out, by making us desire to do the right thing.

I recently read The Radical King, a book of Dr King’s speeches, edited by Cornell West, and in the Introduction West says that he doesn’t understand how Dr. King maintained his hope. West has a point: what could have given Dr. King such certainty that Civil Rights would become a reality? The evidence wasn’t good at the time. When he led marches, demonstrators were sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by police dogs. Paying black workers less than white workers for the same job was legal, and black people were not allowed to use the same swimming pools, bathrooms, or coffee pots as whites. The majority of the U.S. population wanted segregation, and disapproved of Civil Rights demonstrations. What gave him hope that our society would change? 

I think the key is here, in his last speech:

He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Dr. King draws on the language of Exodus, the story of the Israel’s escape from slavery and journey towards the Promised Land, but I think he is also describing an experience he had himself: God took him in the spirit to the place where black and white are equal, and people are judged by the content of their characters, and not the color of their skin. He felt that, soaked in it. It was a reality to him because God allowed him to experience it, and it filled him with hope. That hope empowered him to rise above anger and hatred. I think he was released to forgive because he knew for sure that better days were coming.

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As I look back on my own life, I had a similar experience of God giving me hope when the world looked dark. When I was growing up, my mother suffered from clinical depression and bipolar disorder; she heard voices that no one else could hear, and she went through times when she dissociated, and, although she seemed awake, she was unresponsive. I don’t remember how young I was the first time she told me about her experiences in psychiatric wards, but I was definitely too young to process information about the screaming patients, the barred windows, the terror of shock treatments. She told me how she forgot all about me while in the hospital, that she didn’t know she had a baby somewhere.

I also don’t remember how old I was when I first realized that all these horrible things could happen to me too. Her suffering was in front of me every day, and I was her child, after all. I had her curly hair and her love of books. Why wouldn’t I have her illness? The older I got, the more the fear haunted me. Would I be sent to one of those hospitals? Would I end up being another neighborhood recluse, like she was?

That fear was overcome by the hope Jesus gave me. When I became aware of Him in my life, I knew right away that He was stable, and could keep me stable. I soaked in His strength and health with such relief. For the first time, I was able to picture myself in the future. My time communing with Him made me believe that no matter what lay behind me, my birthright in Him was a good future.

Recently I was remembering this time, and wrote in my journal (this is written in Jesus’ voice): 

You experienced deep peace when you first met me. I drew you into heavenly places, pools of My peace and My deep wisdom. You didn’t – you couldn’t – understand all the things that I know and understand. What I shared with you in that place is the knowledge of God’s ultimate goodness, and the wholeness that is your final destination in heaven. I opened the door and brought you through to the end; I led you by the hand to the place where I have righted every wrong, healed every hurt, and dried every tear. I drew you into a world made new. You partook there of the healing water of My nature; you soaked in My love and My strength.
 This is how I give you peace that passes understanding: I can carry you to the place where I reign forever and all things are subject to My perfect nature. You have not yet seen this happen with your eyes, but I can bring you there in the spirit.

Like King, I was adrift in a world where I saw no way forward. I didn’t know any people like me, who had built successful adult lives in spite of mentally ill parents. Dr. King didn’t have a role model for a racially integrated society. Both of us needed to believe our goal was possible before we could chart a course towards it: we needed hope. God gave that hope to us both, supernaturally. It wasn’t a vision we could prove to others, but we didn’t need to. We had experienced it, and that was enough to light the fire.

 What do you need to overcome? What hope can God give you to make that overcoming possible?

 For a supporting passage in the devotional, Messages from God: An Illuminated Devotional, see Part 2, Day 6: “I Am Not Finished.”