Fighting Together After Transition: A Theological Reflection on the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
By Rev. Jonathan C. Augustine, J.D., M.Div.
In Deuteronomy 34, the Israelites were faced with transition. Although Moses was shown the Promised Land, he was not allowed to reach it with the very people he was chosen to lead. Instead, God raised up Joshua as a new leader to ensure there would be effective leadership, as the Israelites worked together to fight against their enemies and reach their Promised Land.
Just as the Israelites were faced with transition in Deuteronomy, Black America was faced with transition in April 1968. Just as God picked Moses to lead the Israelites against the forces of Pharaoh’s oppressive injustice, God did the same in picking the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to lead Black America against the oppressive forces of Jim Crow. Just as Moses led in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Dr. King did the same, successfully leading God’s people through the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the social oppression necessitating passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Just as Deuteronomy 34:10 proclaims that never since has there been a prophet among the Israelites like Moses, the same might be said of Dr. King’s leadership in the Black community. When God ordered Moses’ transition, Deuteronomy 34:8 tells us that the people wept for 30 days and then the mourning ended. It was then—after transition—that the Israelites came together to fight for the advancement of their people.
In the biblical canon, Deuteronomy is followed by the books of Joshua and Judges, chronicling how the Israelites honored Moses’ legacy by fighting together, against their enemies, to reach the Promised Land. God showed the Promised Land of Canaan to Moses and the Israelites fought to reach it. The same can be said of God’s revelation to Dr. King, considering his famous August 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, heralding America to become a true melting pot of social acceptance, egalitarianism, and communal respect. Indeed, just as the Israelites worked together to fight against their enemies after Moses’ transition, the same can be said for much of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s work after Dr. King’s April 1968 transition to the church triumphant.
Some might argue that Dr. King’s dream became a reality with the 2008 and 2012 elections and successful two-term administration of Barack Obama as the United States’ first Black president. Others, however, might argue that the undercurrent of racism, sexism, classism, and xenophobia that surfaced during the 2016 presidential election cycle—along with the many senseless deaths that sparked the Black Lives Matter Movement—is proof that Dr. King’s dream of America reaching her Promised Land is far from reality.
Eight years ago, in January 2009, many claimed America had fought through racial and social struggles to reach her Promised Land, as Obama was inaugurated only one day after the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday celebration. In January 2017, however, as America approaches observance of the same annual holiday, occurrences during President Obama’s administration make it readily apparent that just like the Israelites with Moses, America is still wandering in the wilderness.
My sincere prayer for the African Methodist Episcopal Church is that it will do just as the Israelites did after Moses’ transition—in anticipating President Obama’s transition from the White House and honoring Dr. King’s transition to be with Moses—work together to fight against the threats and enemies standing in the way of America reaching her Promised Land. For some, doing like the Israelites means working together through the Sons of Allen Ministry and fighting against the dearth of Black male role models. For others, the fight might be through the church’s Social Action Commission to ensure voting rights are restored and those that have paid their debt to society have the opportunity to fully participate therein. Regardless of how one chooses to fight through the AME Church, in quoting Dr. King, my prayer is that we recommit to fighting because “[w]e are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”
This King Holiday, we should all honor Dr. King by doing just as the Israelites did when faced with Moses’ transition and work together to fight against the enemies facing our people.
The Rev. Dr. Jonathan C. Augustine is the 46th Senior Pastor of Historic St. James AME Church in New Orleans, National Chaplain of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., and an adjunct member of the faculties at Southern University Law Center and Jarvis Christian College.