50 years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most prominent evangelicals and activists in the 20th century, was murdered because he stood defiantly for truth and justice. Below is an excerpt from a sermon he gave in 1967 on the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, about six months before his assassination. You can read the whole transcript here.
And I want to say to you this morning, my friends, that somewhere along the way you should discover something that’s so dear, so precious to you, that is so eternally worthful, that you will never give it up. You ought to discover some principle, you ought to have some great faith that grips you so much that you will never give it up. Somehow you go on and say “I know that the God that I worship is able to deliver me, but if not, I’m going on anyhow, I’m going to stand up for it anyway.” What does this mean? It means, in the final analysis, you do right not to avoid hell. If you’re doing right merely to keep from going to something that traditional theology has called hell then you aren’t doing right. If you do right merely to go to a condition that theologians have called heaven, you aren’t doing right. If you are doing right to avoid pain and to achieve happiness and pleasure then you aren’t doing right. Ultimately you must do right because it’s right to do right. And you got to say “But if not.” You must love, ultimately, because it’s lovely to love. You must be just because it’s right to be just. You must be honest because it’s right to be honest. This is what this text is saying more than anything else. And finally, you must do it because it has gripped you so much that you are willing to die for it if necessary.
And I say to you this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. You may be 38 years old as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause–and you refuse to do it because you are afraid; you refuse to do it because you want to live longer; you’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house, and so you refuse to take the stand. Well you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90! And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for what’s right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice. These boys stand before us today, and I thank God for them, for they had found something. The fiery furnace couldn’t stop them from believing. They said “Throw us into the fiery furnace.” But you know the interesting thing is, the Bible talks about a miracle. Because they had faith enough to say “But if not,” God was with them as an eternal companion.
And this is what I want to say finally, that there is a reward if you do right for righteousness’ sake. It says that somehow that burning fiery furnace was transformed into an air-conditioned living room. Somebody looked in there and said “We put three in here, but now we see four.” Don’t ever think you’re by yourself. Go on to jail if necessary but you’ll never go alone. Take a stand for that which is right, and the world may misunderstand you and criticize you, but you never go alone, for somewhere I read that “One with God is a majority,” and God has a way of transforming a minority into a majority. Walk with him this morning and believe in him and do what is right and he’ll be with you even until the consummation of the ages. Yes, I’ve seen the lightning flash, I’ve heard the thunder roll, I’ve felt sin’s breakers dashing trying to conquer my soul but I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on, he promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone; no, never alone, no, never alone. Wherever you’re going this morning, my friends, tell the world that you’re going with truth. You’re going with justice, you’re going with goodness, and you will have an eternal companionship. And the world will look at you and they won’t understand you, for your fiery furnace will be around you, but you’ll go on anyhow. But if not, I will not bow, and God grant that we will never bow before the gods of evil.