What’s In A Name?
He was Michael, and then he was Martin Luther, who was Luder and then chose Luther. Why Luther? Speak a “D” and you have what linguists call a “stop.” Speak a “TH” and you have a “fricative.” The first sound is hard as you stop the air with tongue to the back of the teeth. The second is softer as the tongue beneath the teeth vibrates. That’s how it is in English, but in German the difference is a hard “D” or a softer “t.” The first sounds like “Looder,” the second like “Looter.” But why Luther and not Luder?
The Greek verb meaning “to set free” is “eleutheroó.” To be released from bondage or to remove the restrictions of sin – that’s why Luther was no longer Luder. The Gospel of the Crucified God, freely choosing to empty Himself to free the world from sin, death, and evil changed Luder into Luther. That same Gospel changed Michael Sr. and Michael Jr. into Martin Luther King. In Holy Baptism, God frees us from the slavery into which we were born. Joined to the death and resurrection of His Beloved Son Jesus, we become “huios tou theou,” “sons of God” and “tekna tou theou,” “children of God.” Regardless of sex, we are all “sons” in the Son, but we are also beloved “children” because of our elder brother, the firstborn from the dead. “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed,” says John 8.
A high strung child, I needed winding-down time before falling asleep. Each night, KRLD – AM radio out of Dallas, had an overnight show with soft music at first for those on the verge of sleep. Sponsored by American Airlines, the show began with the sound of a jet airliner taking off. The show was called “Music ‘Til Dawn.” I would push the “sleep” option on the radio, which meant it would turn itself off in an hour. Most nights I was asleep after thirty minutes. Two times I was jarred from that state just before sleep by breaking news. The first was April 4, 1968. The younger Martin Luther, 39 years old like one of his heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had been assassinated by a sniper’s bullet in Memphis TN. Not many weeks after, the breaking news was the assassination of presidential candidate, Bobby Kennedy. I was 14. What a world!
Our schools had begun to integrate in 1965, because our President, Lyndon Johnson, was a Texan, and what Lyndon wanted he usually got. Our hometown was the home of legendary Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, a mentor to Lyndon, so that was that. The Klan be damned, Bonham Independent School District integrated. Just a few kids left the safety of black schools at first to walk through the doors to a different world. Self-confident Lewis, who became an All-State athlete in football, and Peggy, who had the sweetest smile, were in our class. Lewis’ grandmother had been housekeeper for our family’s best friends. I knew Lewis from having played with him when he accompanied his grandmother on occasion. All of her kids had done well. Her grandsons went to college. Most left the restrictions of Texas to live in the north. One time his grandmother told us that, if we were going to play with Lewis, we had to play in the Butlers’ backyard, out of the sight of disapproving eyes. We remembered in time.
I don’t remember there being much interracial tension in the schools after integration, that is, until we got to high school, which was, of course, after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated. The fall of 1968 was an ugly time. The Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive, dominated the news. American inner cities were a tinder box that often literally broke out into open flames. Many college campuses were on the verge of revolution. Depressed by his loss of support, President Johnson decided not to run for reelection. Then, there was the Democratic National Convention in Chicago which was marked by a fierce conflict between the Chicago Police and young people protesting the war. It was the era of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.”
I can still hear Dr. King’s voice, the mesmerizing sound of it, the ability to modulate and the marvelous cadence of well-chosen words from testaments old and new. “I Have A Dream” and “I Have Been to the Mountain Top” are two of the most powerful American speeches in our history. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the United States Constitution were filled with promises yet to be kept. No longer Michael, but Martin, like Luther not Luder, told all Americans, as he did in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” why those promises of freedom for all had to be fulfilled now!
Novelist Stephen Berry has crafted a scenario in which Dr. King the Younger chose martyrdom like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his “Bishop’s Pawn,” King uses the hatred of the paranoid head of the FBI and of other white Americans opposed to change to set up his own assassination in order to propel his non-violent approach ahead of the simmering violence of groups like the Black Panthers. Berry weaves a plausible tale not nearly as masterful as Greg Iles’ Bone Tree trilogy and not nearly as chilling as Stephen Hunter’s “The Third Bullet” and its plot to assassinate President Kennedy in Dallas. As he draws near the end, Berry becomes preachy, in the unflattering sense of the word, opting for tired white leftist cliches over substance.
Dr. King was, like his namesake Martin Luther, a flawed man. Neither believed in unexamined hagiography. As the first Martin Luther wrote, we are simul iustus et peccator, simultaneously saints and sinners, justified and yet in bondage to sin and unable to free ourselves. The younger Martin knew his brokenness well. He was a great sinner, like all of us, but He had a greater Savior, who on Calvary’s tree set Michael free to be Martin. Someday each “son of God,” each of God’s baptized children, will be laid to rest, perhaps violently, perhaps not. We Americans owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who reminded us that words matter. Freedom is not, as Kris Kristofferson wrote, just another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom is freedom from sin, death, and Satan and freedom for joyfully giving one’s life away in humble service, like our Lord Jesus, out of love for God and for the sake of our neighbor. On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was free at last, no longer held in sin’s dread sway.
So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom (Psalm 90:12).