On Christmas Eve 1967, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a Christmas sermon at his home congregation of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. King had been asked by the Canadian Broadcasting Company to deliver a series of five lectures for their Massey Lecture Series and the sermon was broadcast as the final part of that 1967 lecture series.
The sermon, entitled, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” was to be the last Christmas sermon that Dr. King ever delivered as he was assassinated less than four months later. A truly tragic end for a man who in this sermon and throughout his career, shared hope for a non-violent and peaceful world.
The Christmas Sermon on Peace is well worth the read, or even better, a listen. I’ve attached the audio of the sermon below. As one of the best orators of the 20th century, its best to listen to Dr. King himself deliver the message. It’s nice to hear the engagement from his congregation also as he delivers the sermon and to hear the congregational singing at the end, Come Let Us Adore Him.
By 1967, Dr. King had witnessed much progress come from his work such as desegregation in the Jim Crow South and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965. But he had turned his attention to even larger and more complex foes by 1967, beginning work on addressing economic inequalities and the war in Vietnam which the nation was sinking further into by the day. His outspoken opposition to the war angered many of his supporters and damaged his relationship with President Johnson who had been an ally in passing the Civil Rights Act. Between that and the fact that a younger generation was increasingly rejecting his message of non-violence, Dr. King found himself more besieged than he perhaps had ever been in his career as he worked to fight violence and injustice.
Peace On Earth, Good Will Towards Men
In his sermon, Dr. King discussed the idea of what it would truly mean to have “that Christmas Hope: Peace On Earth and Good Will Towards Men”. His thinking in this particular sermon had turned to a global focus and he discusses the idea that all men are interdependent. He offers an idealistic view of global diplomacy and argues against the age-old idea of good ends justifying negative means.
“But we will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.”Martin Luther King Jr, 1967 Christmas Sermon on Peace
My Dream Has Turned Into a Nightmare
Towards the end of the sermon, he calls back to the famous 1963 “I have a Dream” speech he had made a few years prior. Except in this sermon, he admits that the optimism of that speech has been tested by the unrelenting darkness of this world we are living in and he says, “I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream, I started seeing it turn into a nightmare.”
This is a sentiment he had already talked about before. Earlier that year, in May of 1967, he had sat down to talk with NBC News correspondent Sander Vanocur and had used similar wording in discussing that his dream had “turned into a nightmare.” In that interview he discussed the “soul searching” he had been through since his most famous 1963 speech and that the “old optimism” of the civil rights movement had been “a little superficial” and needed to be united with “a solid realism”.
It seems that like all idealists, Dr. King was being worn down by the chasm between his idealistic vision for the world as it could/should be and the reality of the world as it is. But he concludes that through this weariness, he still holds on to his dream.
“In 1963, on a sweltering August afternoon, we stood in Washington, D.C., and talked to the nation about many things. Toward the end of that afternoon, I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had, and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare. I remember the first time I saw that dream turn into a nightmare, just a few weeks after I had talked about it. It was when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. I watched that dream turn into a nightmare as I moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw my black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, and saw the nation doing nothing to grapple with the Negroes’ problem of poverty. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched my black brothers and sisters in the midst of anger and understandable outrage, in the midst of their hurt, in the midst of their disappointment, turn to misguided riots to try to solve that problem. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched the war in Vietnam escalating, and as I saw so-called military advisors, 16,000 strong, turn into fighting soldiers until today over 500,000 American boys are fighting on Asian soil. Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of all. And so today I still have a dream.”Martin Luther King Jr, 1967 Christmas Sermon on Peace
After Christmas, what?
In another Christmas sermon that he delivered several years prior on December 28, 1952 at Ebenezer, Reverend King had asked the congregation, “After Christmas, what?” He gave a sermon by that title and he asked that important question. What is the point of Christmas if we walk away from “our meeting with Christ” with no discernable difference in our lives? In that sermon he posed this question to the congregation:
“For the past few days, we have made our symbolic journeys and pilgrimages to Bethlehem. We have symbolically knelt before the infant Jesus at his manger. There we have beheld him in all of his grandeur and glory…… Now ….. we leave Bethlehem and make our way back to our various homes the question poses itself, What did we gain? What is the value of our meeting with Christ? What is Christmas going to do for us in terms of changed attitudes and better social conditions? Will Christmas mean just another item in our social calendar or will it mean a new life and new attitudes resulting from our encounter with Christ.”Martin Luther King Jr in sermon delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church on December 28, 1952
That is still a perfectly relevant question to ask ourselves today. As many of us contemplate the Lord’s arrival to earth in human form, how will we be changed as we go forward after we’ve “symbolically knelt before the infant Jesus at his manger?” Will we only sing the words “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men” or will we truly live in a way that treats all of humanity as our neighbors as Dr. King reminded us in his Christmas Sermon on Peace that Jesus instructed us to do?