Truth 4: We must do what we know is right, even when it leaves us alone. We must seek to shape other’s views, not be shaped by the most popular view of the time.
As with any public figure, Dr. King’s popularity ebbed and flowed during his time in the spotlight. But there may have been nothing that caused him more criticism then when he took a stand in opposition to the Vietnam War. Some labeled him a communist. Those who already opposed him saw it as an opportunity to point the finger and say, “I told you so. We’ve been saying this guy is no good all along and this finally proves it.”
What might have hurt the most though, was that even many of those who supported him as a Civil Rights leader, even those who were in the movement with him, found fault with his going public in his criticism of America’s part in the war. They said he needed to stay in his own lane. Stick to what he knew. Others told him he was hurting the cause for equality for black Americans by speaking out against the war.
And King was one who liked to be liked. He was always the peace maker for SCLC. He kept an eye on polls that tracked his approval rating. King wanted others to think highly of him. Yet, when it came down to it, when push came to shove, he knew staying true to his conscience was more important than popularity. In November of 1967 King spoke on the domestic impact of the Vietnam War at the National Labor Leadership Assembly for Peace. And at the end of his speech he addressed the opposition he was facing.
“When I first decided to take a firm stand against the war in Vietnam, I was subjected to the most bitter criticism, by the press, by individuals, and even by some fellow civil rights leaders. There were those who said that I should stay in my place, that these two issues did not mix and I should stick with civil rights. Well I had only one answer for that and it was simply the fact that I have struggled too long and too hard now to get rid of segregation in public accommodations to end up at this point in my life segregating my moral concerns.
And I made it very clear that I recognized that justice was indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And then there are those who said ‘You’re hurting the civil right movement.’ One spoke to me one day and said, ‘Now Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to agree more with the Administration’s policy. I understand that your position on Vietnam has hurt the budget of your organization. And many people who respected you in civil rights have lost that respect and don’t you think that you’re going to have to agree more with the Administration’s policy to regain this.’ And I had to answer by looking that person into the eye, and say ‘I’m sorry sir but you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader.’ I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of my organization or by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion. Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.
On some positions a coward has asked the question is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question is it right? And there come a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
As with the previous truths we have taken from Dr. King, this truth is founded in scripture. In the book of Acts the apostles are out preaching of the resurrected Christ. An angel comes and lets them out of prison and the apostles immediately go back to breaching in the temple. The high priests would have none of that and they send the captain of the temple and his officers to round up the apostles and bring them in. The high priests demands that the apostles stop teaching the name of Jesus. And in verse 29 of chapter 5, Peter gives his reply, “We must obey God rather than men.” Just for good measure the high priests had the apostles beaten and charged them one last time not to speak the name of Jesus before sending them away, to which verse 42 shows the apostles reaction, “every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.”
On the contrary, seeking the approval of man above God is one of the main points of emphasize in Jesus’ frequent scoldings of the Pharisees. John 15:42-43 says, “Many people did believe in him, however, including some of the Jewish leaders. But they wouldn’t admit it for fear that the Pharisees would expel them from the synagogue. For they loved human praise more than the praise of God.”
There are times when we must take a stand for something we know will be unpopular because we know it to be right, and when we stand for what is right we obey God rather than man. It may cost us popularity, a friendship, some money, or even a job. But, these types of stands, ones that put our backs against the wall and even alienate us from others, are the ones that drive us deeper into the arms of the Lord. These stands are the ones that solidify and deepen our faith.
As Christians we know that in order to speak the name of Jesus and stand firm on the principals of God’s word, we will at times stand alone.