There is a reason why Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday sticks out each year. Long before all the states finally agreed to make it a national holiday, King’s work and witness was celebrated because he was a “transformed nonconformist.”
King didn’t simply talk about justice, he proclaimed it and there’s a notable difference. His life was shaped by the message, embodying the fight for freedom and equality while emboldening others to join in. It was an announcement — not a talking point for discussion.
And while King is rightly praised as a civil rights icon, his message of peace, nonviolence and social justice was delivered mainly to congregations. The expectation of transformation was placed on Christians. His sermons from both Dexter Avenue and Ebenezer Baptist Church were preached throughout the country.
“Transformed Nonconformist” is the title of a sermon in King’s book The Strength to Love where he writes: “Nowhere is the tragic tendency to conform more evident than in the church, an institution which has often served to crystallize, conserve and even bless patterns of majority opinion. The erstwhile sanction by the church of slavery, racial segregation, war, and economic exploitation is testimony to the fact that the church has hearkened more to the authority of the world than to the authority of God.”
King is inspired by Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome, to whom he writes: “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2, KJV). King refers to this as “difficult advice,” and I believe he’s right.
The impulse to fit in so as not to be left out and to squeeze into images of success rather than be viewed as a failure by social standards is strong. While we all want to be a part of a community, this should not be confused with being grouped or lumped in.
In standing apart, King often stood alone — though he preached to large congregations and was surrounded in marches.
Refusing to play a part in the conflict-driven narrative of race and the segregating life it offered, King went another way and that’s a sermon in and of itself. “If there is to be preaching, all it can do is conform itself to the life of Christ in community,” Richard Lischer wrote in The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence.
King didn’t just challenge the status quo; he called into question the Christian’s conformity to it — not just in his sermon but in his unbroken “stride toward freedom.” “For colored only,” “For whites only,” he didn’t let the signs of the time change him.
“Living in the colony of time, we are ultimately responsible to the empire of eternity. As Christians, we must never surrender our supreme loyalty to any time-bound custom or earth-bound idea, for at the heart of our universe is a higher reality — God and his kingdom of love — to which we must be conformed,” King shared with the congregation.
None of this should come as a surprise as he followed in the nonconforming steps of Jesus, who raised the ethical standards of the religious leaders of his day. This is most notable in his Sermon on the Mount, which was called “ultra-piety” by Justin Martyr. Its conformity was considered unattainable by Reinhold Niebuhr in his book An Interpretation of Christian Ethics.
But it wasn’t a lofty goal for King, who said in his last speech, “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.”
King kept his “eyes on the prize,” content with his glimpse of it. Thus, I am grateful for a day to remember a man who didn’t conform to what he saw but felt compelled to transform it.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week to call attention to Monday, January 16, 2023, as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The other articles in the series are:
Martin Luther King Jr.: An Exemplar of Prophetic Citizenship | Wendell Griffen
How MLK’s Pastoral Ministry Shaped His Civil Rights Work | Terrell Carter
Reconsidering the Truths We Hold | Larrin R. Robertson