Introduction to “The Last Week of Jesus Christ and the Last Year of Martin Luther King” Bible Study Series
What’s the connection between Jesus, Martin Luther King, the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 and poor people organizing today? Let’s start with looking at Jesus, particularly the last week of his activities that leads to his crucifixion as a rebel of the empire.
A starting point is to consider the ways that Jesus was countered with Caesar, the emperor of Rome during Jesus’ lifetime. Jesus was called the same titles as the emperor—things like Lord, Son of God, Bearer of Peace, King of Kings, etc., even though Jesus was a poor peasant from Galilee who spent his time healing and teaching other poor peasants. Jesus was doing many of the same activities as the emperor—feeding the people, healing, exorcising, looking after the people—but Jesus’ meals were things like feeding the five thousand where lots of poor people shared a small amount of food and it was enough, and Jesus’ health care plan didn’t cost a thing. We could go on about these contrasts, but let’s look at a specific example—the entry into Jerusalem.
John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, leading historical Jesus scholars, talk about the last week of Jesus and the entry into Jerusalem in their book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem (2007). Jesus enters Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey—not a chariot, or even horse—in a way that could be viewed as a parallel procession of Caesar’s imperial guard. There are two processions happening on Palm Sunday. Jesus is riding a mule, a lowly animal, and in so doing, he is mocking the procession of the Roman military force that is entering Jerusalem to do crowd control during Passover.
Once Jesus enters Jerusalem, he goes to the Temple to check things out. He returns to the temple on Monday and causes a scene there. We like to look at what Jesus does in the temple as civil disobedience—stopping the corrupt buying and selling and pronouncing the temple courtyard as a den of robbers, a safehouse for people who are stealing and cheating the poor. It is after these acts of civil disobedience when it is determined that Jesus must be crucified.
And this is where a parallel with King and the Poor People’s Campaign comes in. The last campaign that King participated in was the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike. King was invited to help lead this march, and he resolved to do so. There aren’t two parallel marches in Memphis. Instead, the imperial guard (Memphis Police and National Guard) monitor the march and manage the crowd at this procession.
Also, what we know about King and the Poor People’s Campaign is that it starts in Marks, MS with a mule train. Marks is in the poorest county in the U.S., just like Galilee was one of the poorest places in the Roman Empire. Poor folks from Marks set off on mules/donkeys to enter Washington DC, the political and economic and (could we say) religious center of the U.S., just like Jerusalem was the center of Judea within Rome. In fact, the Temple was one of the wonders of the world at this time.
What King proposed and what the people did when they got to DC was set up a “Resurrection City” (notice the religious language). From this tent city, poor people of all races left every day to go protest and do massive civil disobedience in hospitals and the department of agriculture and other temples of our day.
If we wanted to draw the connection between Jesus and the early Jesus movement and King and the Poor People’s Campaign, we could talk about King’s assassination, the abandonment of lots of King’s friends who were not really able to carry the Poor People’s Campaign to a successful conclusion, and a rebirth of that campaign by poor people 40 years later. This effort includes both people who have been fighting to end poverty from Marks for the past 40 years and other poor people who are joining together to re-ignite the Poor People’s Campaign today.
These are themes we will explore in this Bible Study. We hope the texts will offer some insight and impetus for re-igniting the Poor People’s Campaign. Churches, youth groups and community organizations are all needed and wanted.
Use the readings and discussion questions to draw your own connections between the last week of Jesus Christ and the last year of Martin Luther King. All Bible quotes come from the New International Version (NIV). If you prefer another translation, please replace the NIV quotes with the translation of your choice. You may choose to use some of the other readings in this book as supplementary reading for this Bible Study.