The greatest works of Martin Luther King, Jr. are the “I have a dream” sermon and the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” These are MLK at his best, when his preparation and his personal struggles lined up providentially with the turbulent events of the civil rights movement, and he found all the right words to say what needed to be said. Take up and read.
But King also produced some minor masterpieces, and reading those less perfect pieces is a great way to see how he put together the style that would be used so powerfully in his life’s work. Here are a few of the best lines from an early 1954 sermon. You can listen to it here, and read the full transcript.
With his message of “going back” to “recover lost values,” this sermon showcases King at his conservative best.
*The trouble isn’t so much that we don’t know enough, but it’s as if we aren’t good enough.
*The real problem is that through our scientific genius we’ve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we’ve failed to make of it a brotherhood.
*This is a moral universe, and that there are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws.
*I’m not so sure if we really believe that there is a law of love in this universe, and that if you disobey it you’ll suffer the consequences.
*We have adopted in the modern world a sort of a relativistic ethic. Now I’m not trying to use a big word here; I’m trying to say something very concrete. … Some things are right and some things are wrong, no matter if everybody is doing the contrary. Some things in this universe are absolute. The God of the universe has made it so. And so long as we adopt this relative attitude toward right and wrong, we’re revolting against the very laws of God himself.
*That’s the attitude, isn’t it? It’s all right to disobey the Ten Commandments, but just don’t disobey the eleventh, “Thou shall not get caught.” That’s the attitude. That’s the prevailing attitude in our culture.
*You know, a sort of attitude of the survival of the slickest. Not the Darwinian survival of the fittest, but the survival of the slickestâ€”whoever can be the slickest is the one who right. It’s all right to lie, but lie with dignity. It’s all right to steal and to rob and extort, but do it with a bit of finesse.
*You see, we didn’t grow up and say, “Now, goodbye God, we’re going to leave you now.” The materialism in America has been an unconscious thing. Since the rise of the Industrial Revolution in England, and then the invention of all of our gadgets and contrivances and all of the things and modern conveniencesâ€”we unconsciously left God behind. We didn’t mean to do it.
*As a young man with most of my life ahead of me, I decided early to give my life to something eternal and absolute. Not to these little gods that are here today and gone tomorrow, but to God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Not in the little gods that can be with us in a few moments of prosperity, but in the God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, and causes us to fear no evil. That’s the God.
*The God that I’m talking about this morning is the God of the universe and the God that will last through the ages. If we are to go forward this morning, we’ve got to go back and find that God. That is the God that demands and commands our ultimate allegiance.