ONE of the most ignored dimensions of the life and message of Martin Luther King Jr. is his insistence on the universal nature of Christianity. Maybe more than any social leader in this century, King reached into Hebrew scripture and the New Testament and found that its message of justice applies to every person under the sun. King relentlessly took that message to the streets as ``a drum major for justice.''
All Christians owe a debt of gratitude to King for rescuing and even restoring part of the universality of the Christian message. He insisted that Paul in Galatians meant what he said - that in the eyes of God there is neither slave, nor Jew, nor Greek. The overflowing spirit of divine justice King found in Scriptures and so eloquently preached was above race and gender, above creed and denominational parochialism.
From his first days at Dexter Church in Montgomery, Ala., in 1954, King's message had a practical effect. His was not a conservative message of one day inheriting the kingdom. Rather he argued that equality would come one day by claiming it now: ``Justice too long delayed is justice denied!'' King's congregants were, as they say, ``empowered.'' His New Testament nonviolence - loving one's enemies - helped them boycott the Montgomery buses and earn the respect of many whites. Water fountains and lunch counters were desegregated. Voting rights and integration followed - the civil rights movement.
The secular liberal wing of the Democratic Party quickly co-opted civil rights. Silence today about the religious dimension to the movement shows how successful they were. Yet the truth is, civil rights in this era began in spiritually radicalized middle-class congregations in the black churches of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch admires King's persistence in the darkest hours. ``In Birmingham it seemed the entire movement collapsed. But King kept it alive with an army of children. That took guts.''
The universality of King's message was told on these pages in August by Pastor Kristian Fuehrer of the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, Germany - the Lutheran church at the center of opposition to East German-Soviet repression in 1989. Pastor Fuehrer said King was a model ``for his nonviolence and ability to translate religious ideas into nonreligious terms.''
Fuehrer said King helped Nikolai find ``a Jesus that spoke directly to the people the truth. ... [Thus] amid the repression, the church became something larger ... a sphere of protection, a refuge for free thinking. We grew. We lost our fear ... and we went out onto the street.''
The Monitor salutes Martin Luther King Day - a day for everyone.