Summary: If we have God's truth in our hearts, we must speak our witness. It is not good enough to remain silent. That word must be a word of love and it must be a word of justice. Martin Luther King exemplified this discipline.
Takoma Park Baptist Church, Washington, DC January 19, 1986
It was the spring of 1964, and I had to make a choice. I had to decide whether I would, in my very first year of ministry, do something which would create a bit of tension in the church, but which the students with whom I worked were clamoring to do. Either I could take the way of comfort, the way which would seem appropriate to the older and more settled, more conservative people of the church; or I could take the way with which I personally felt in agreement, the way which would offer, I hoped, a witness to the college and to the students.
And so, with some misgivings and with a little doubt, I took the second road. I piled students into the bus and took off one lovely morning for the state capitol, where there was to be a large demonstration, a rally, designed to urge our governor and our state legislature to enact a civil rights bill, a bill which would guarantee equal access to all public facilities in Kentucky. And as we stood there, part of a vast throng of people who had come from all over the state and even beyond the borders of the state, we listen to the words of a young orator, a preacher, obscure only a few years before, but now a rising star. No, more than that, a fully risen star, a preacher of great power and insight.
There on that morning, hearing for the first time in person the electric oratory of Martin Luther King, Jr., all my doubts melted away. All my misgivings about the rightness of what I had done disappeared. Under the veritable waterfall or his words, I was bathed in a sense of well-being, I was cleansed of any fear I might have had. I went home that afternoon lifted, elevated, made confidant, inspired to do yet more for this cause.
You see, speech can do that. Words in the mouth of' a master orator can do that. Human speech is the most marvelous instrument yet created for convincing and for persuading, for inspiring and for motivating. With speech men and women have been lifted out of the morass, with speech, with words, men and women have been turned around; with speech, with the power of human communication, our lives have been shaped.
I think of teachers I've had, for example. I think of some of my teachers, and I remember. I may not remember enough of the subject matter they taught me even to pass the exam now, but I remember how they taught me and what kinds of concerns for my life they brought. I remember well my high school Latin teacher, probing and prodding and driving me to discipline myself, as with the simple phrase, “Well now,” she would comment on my recitation. “Well now,” said as though the executioner’s ax were about to fall. But she convinced me of the power of words well used, and she altered my sense of self, she gave me a thirst for precision that has not left me.
And I remember my university professor, a professor of organic chemistry, of all things –and I know very well I could not pass his tests now, because I didn't always pass them even then – but I remember the caustic wit and the poison pen he wielded over those long and pretentious reports I tried to write. Somehow I had felt that if you were to be a scholar, you ought never to use two or three plain English words when eight or ten polysyllabic Latinate utterances would do! And when he rewrote a three-page paper of mine and said the same thing in three sentences, I learned. I learned about the power of words, I learned about an economy of words; some of you have wondered about that on certain Sundays, haven’t you? And I learned again that words, speech cuts through and shapes. When I am addressed, when someone speaks the truth to me, speaks my kind of truth, I am changed.
I could go on. I could tell you of the New Testament professor who helped us love words, who helped us learn how to speak the words which care and comfort others. Dr. Brown, for example, insisted that when we young preachers were to do funerals that we read out of the King James Bible, though of course he was very much committed to the best translation, the most up-to-date translation possible. But, said he, when people need to be comforted, it will never do to debase that glorious line, “In my father's house are many mansions.” to the more cut and dried, “In my father's house are a lot of rooms.”