Dr. King, John the Baptist, and Christian Servanthood

Cover of “Be a King” by Carole Boston Weatherford.

Cover of “Be a King” by Carole Boston Weatherford.

“May I stress the need for courageous, intelligent, and dedicated leadership. I can never overlook this…In this period of transition and growing social change, we will need leaders who are positive and yet calm. Leaders who avoid the extremes of hotheadedness…Leaders not in love with publicity, but in love with justice. Leaders not in love with money, but in love with humanity. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the greatness of the cause. God give us leaders.”- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King gave us this image of leadership at the end of his address to the Annual Luncheon of the National Committee for Rural Schools in 1956. He made this address right here in New York City at what was then called the Commodore Hotel (It is now the Grand Hyatt at Grand Central). He was speaking at a time when the United States was wrestling through desegregation. The Supreme Court had its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, making state laws establishing separate schools for black and white children unconstitutional, and yet many states laws were still in place to segregate and the country was in constant tension over race. Much of his larger address from which this quote comes from addresses the evils of segregation, how it destroys communities, and how it deeply effects both the segregator and the segregated psychologically. Dr. King even shares his own story of being ushered to a back room at an Atlanta airport restaurant because of the Georgia’s segregation laws. 

While there is much we need to learn from our nation’s history on the matter of segregation and the civil rights movement, I want to take a moment and reflect on what Dr. King has to teach us regarding leadership in general, and more precisely Christ-centered leadership. I was struck by this quote because while I believe in the sincerity of my heart that this is true leadership, this is not what I spend my time dwelling on and desiring for myself as a leader. If I have to be honest about where I spend a lot of my headspace, it is in pondering the idea of calling and how I think I am going to make my mark on this world. My hopes and dreams are not selfish entirely (I would like to be a Christian author and pastor some day), but they are also not totally servant-hearted either. I often find myself stuck in this Instagram doting, wondering when I am going to get that next great opportunity kind of stupor. 

This quote humbled me, because in speaking of leaders for a just unsegregated USA, Dr King is painting a picture of the heart of a  Christian leader. And yet, service is not always what my heart longs for. Status is what my heart longs for, and this is something I need to learn to continually shun, and to run towards an image of being a Christian servant in the city. 

In Luke 3, we hear from God’s word what it means to be a leader. John the Baptist is performing a lot of baptisms, teaching about repentance and the crowds are coming to him. In short, he is achieving a lot and having great success. His message to the crowds who are coming to him for baptism? He calls them a brood of vipers and tells them if they don’t bear spiritual fruit they will be cut off. Harsh, I know, but then the crowd asks for advice, and he tells them to give away their possessions so that everyone has what they need, to do their jobs justly and honestly, and to be content with what God has given them (specifically in their salaries!). In brief, John is saying to those who want to be baptized, who want to follow the way of the coming Messiah, that they need to live lives of generosity, justice and contentment. 

Dr. King says a good leader is not in love with fame or money, but rather someone who is love with justice, humanity and who is peacemaker. John the baptist says a Christian is called to living a life of spiritual fruit, generosity, and living just and content lives. Their pictures of leadership challenge me to live a more satisfied life, not satisfied but the externalities of the world, but rather on an abiding relationship with God, and the character He produces in me through that abiding. Not on dwelling on what great things others get to do as I scroll through social media, but rather focussing on what I can do today to grow and to live a closer life with God imitating the life Christ lived on earth. 

Luke 3 ends with the baptism of Jesus, the greatest leader who has ever lived, and specifically with the audible voice of God proclaiming about Jesus “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Which ultimately states the goal of any Christian servant, seeking to live a surrendered life: to point people to Jesus who is the only one who can offer us eternal life. The justice that King speaks of, that we desperately need for our country and world, can only be found in Christ. For those of us seeking justice, we need to be reminded that Jesus is the ultimate measure of justice. Ultimately this is so refreshing! The end goal of my life is not to make much of my life, not to achieve great success, but rather to point people towards Jesus, because He is the only one who can make life truly last and truly mean something. 

As Dr. King prayed above, “God, grant us these leaders.” I pray that the millennial generation can continue to grow in our humility, desire for true connection to people, and to serve and make a difference. Dr. King didn’t just pray though, he acted and lived a courageous life believing God would answer his prayers and dreams. As I was reading his account of being ushered to a back room to eat, I wondered how many times this happened to him, and how many times he had to persevere. But as Dr. King exhorted his listeners in 1956, we need to be exhorted of it today. This is the way to change, and the way that happens one act of servanthood at a time. 

Post written by Sam Leopold, January 21, 2019

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