Van Ens: Why Martin Luther King Jr pleaded for God’s mercy
No Earthling is perfect. We are a mixture of what’s saintly and sleazy, virtuous and vile, heroic and heinous. The Good Book has it right in Romans 3:23: “Each person falls short of God’s glory.” That is, God’s impeccable character and pristine mercy towards us.
Many Americans admire the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a moral titan whose civil rights record reformed national values of equality for all citizens in the 1960s. In 1964, Time put him on its cover as its Man of the Year. In Sweden, he received the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person at that time upon whom this honor was conferred. King’s achievements brought congressional approval to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, followed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act signed into law.
Martin Luther King Jr. hid a dark underside, however, that fractured his moral image. He cheated on his wife. Rumors of adultery trailed him but drifted like puffs of smoke because Americans hailed him as a beacon of human rights.
David J. Garrow, King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who wrote the 1986 biography, “Bearing the Cross,” reported last May that King had extramarital affairs with nearly four dozen women while he championed civil rights.
Garrow sifted through summaries of previously unreleased FBI records. Full transcripts of this incriminating evidence of philandering, which includes the FBI’s audiotapes, is sealed until 2022.
Garrow reported in a 7,800-word article published last May in the British magazine Standpoint how King and some colleagues engaged in group sex, coyly inventing code language for spreading their lust and seed among female “parishioners.”
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrongly believed King was a Communist sympathizer whose aim was to spread insurrection, pitting blacks against white. Consequently, the FBI bugged hotels where King and his colleagues enjoyed clandestine trysts.
Standpoint magazine showcased Garrow’s findings with a lurid lead-in editorial, calling King “a sexual predator” who ranked as “the Harvey Weinstein of the civil rights movement.”
How do we handle these shocking details about King, which shows the human heart wavers between moral endeavor and immoral activity? What did King do to rectify his wayward behavior?
Similar immoral conduct has hounded impeached presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Clinton engaged in an affair with 32-year-old intern Monica Lewinski and then lied to Congress about his sexual liaison with her. Such chicanery led to impeachment by the House of Representatives and stained Clinton’s reputation as a sleazy rogue who sacrificed political strengths.
President Donald Trump has been caught on camera bragging about grabbing women by their genitals and his sexual rendezvous with “some of the most beautiful women in the world,” which are not part of the articles of impeachment against him. Few Americans doubt he’s capable of such debauchery.
A key difference separates King’s and Clinton’s infidelities from the extra-marital sexual antics of Donald Trump, however. The former repented of their marital infidelities. Trump sidesteps such apologies. If leaning on God’s mercy is a prime sign of allegiance to Christ, Trump keeps hidden his appeals for divine forgiveness. He’s proud of offering no apologies because he habitually engages in “perfect” conversations with “beautiful women.” Living a mistake-free life, Trump acts as if his glittering track record matches the golden hues reflected from the Trump Tower.
In contrast, Martin Luther King Jr. often admitted to congregations he was a sinner. His flaws crouched like shadows around him. Only light from Jesus’ mercy dispelled them. He echoed the frank assessment of human failure the Apostle Paul confessed in I Timothy 1:15: “Christ came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners.”
Clinton hedged remorse for a season, but then his upbringing featuring Baptist revivals in Arkansas caught up with him. He contritely confessed his wanderlust, the stain of which only God’s mercy removes.
Our nation has lost what was once expected of moral political leaders, writes The Wall Street Journal’s columnist Peggy Noonan. “We have entered the age of the post-heroic presidency,” she laments. “Certain low ways are forgiven, certain rough ways now established.
“Americans once asked a lot of their presidents. They had to be people not only of high competence and solid, sober backgrounds, but high character. In modern presidencies, you can trace a line from, say, Harry S. Truman, who had it in abundance, to Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, who also did.”
Martin Luther King Jr. teaches that what counts is not how hard we fall but whether we lean on God’s mercy to pick us up and make constructive changes for how we live.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.