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Jan 20 2014

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The Christian Theology of Martin Luther King Jr.

   As we commemorate the 85th anniversary of Reverend Martin Luther King’s birthday we must reflect on all aspects of this dynamic, godly young man’s varied belief system. Known mainly and understandably as something of an American Ghandi, the paladin of non-violent release from the American republic’s ingrained tradition of institutional racism, he is venerated as our greatest champion in the quest for social reform and healing. It was a campaign for which he gave his life, but even in death and after so many years his spirit lingers as a reminder of his cause, and as encouragement to continue his march for equality and justice. He was known to most as Doctor King, but he most cherished the title Reverend.

   “Even if we are abused every day, if we are denounced every day, if we suffer injustice every day–never let anyone drag you so low as to hate. There is an element of God in everyman”

   This quote is one of his most famous, and certainly his most revealing. They could scarcely come from someone driven solely by politics or any other secular motive. Human nature being what it is these words could come only from someone wholly and willingly possessed by the Holy Spirit and willing to listen to others who are similarly and equally affected. During his theological studies King was heavily influenced by Christian author Walter Rauschenbusch who, in his A Theology for the Social Gospel, wrote “The social gospel needs a theology to make it effective, but theology needs the social gospel to vitalize it.” This passage illustrates Rauschenbusch’s conviction that Christ’s teachings of 2000 years ago remain relevant to this day mainly because we still have the poor and oppressed who need to hear the gospel. King realized the truth in Rauschenbusch’s argument that Jesus’ words can be used to bring deliverance from not only spiritual destitution, but from the bondage of racism, classism and economic and social oppression. As we enter a new millenium we can use King’s message to heal a cornucopia of societal ills.

   Rauschenbusch’s writings impressed on King the need to use Christ’s teachings to connect spiritual and secular work–to impact and empower social reformation by approaching the cause from a Christian standpoint. Honoring America’s Founding Fathers’ desire for a faith-based government is the basis for the ongoing need to keep the gospel message alive and deeply entrenched in the lives and government of this country which is slipping off of its traditional Christian foundation. This is well-encapsulated by the Chicago Theological Seminary’s motto, “Ministry for the real world.” As King realized early in his theological training, the teachings of Jesus Christ will never become obsolete, either inside or outside the sanctuary. It is a message he repeatedly preached from the pulpit.

   He also realized that the application of Rauschenbusch’s beliefs would benefit not only one’s spiritual well-being, but the mind and body as well. King realized this would apply both to individuals, and all of society. His adjurations for widespread adoption of this philosophy (as well as his refusal to consider anyone to be his enemy) classifies him as more than just a civil rights activist. On the world stage he became a crusader for both sociological and spiritual healing. Also, he was wise and righteous enough to allow himself to be influenced not only by Rauschenbusch, but by the Baptist denomination’s black congregation, whose linage included him.

   During a childhood and adolescence spent listening to the sermons of his father and other black Baptist clergymen, King absorbed their message that all of humanity is connected simply because it is humanity. Nobody anywhere is excluded from Our Lord’s invitation to accept eternal salvation. King’s realization and happy acceptance of the fact that no human being is not a child of God Almighty led him to explain this belief in writing.

  “In a real sense all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I’m what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

   This is a truth that, in King’s lifetime as well as now, had gone largely unrecognized. His championing of this notion of universal brotherhood and mutual responsibility rather than nationalism made him a pioneer in interreligious dialogue. Not only did he cast aside any qualms about adopting a Hindu’s (Ghandi) devotion to non-violence, but he absorbed the Reverend Willie Barrow’s belief that, “We are not so much disunited as we are disconnected.” Never did King let his ego interfere with his devotion to proclaiming the truth, even if it meant giving credit to someone else who might even have been of a different religion. This made it inevitable that his influence would spread far beyond the sacred community–it made him a force in the secular world as well.

   Realizing that centuries of slavery and subsequent second-class citizenship indicated that the “wait and see” philosophy of many black religious leaders had failed, King preached a dynamic, active message and took a course of action that included protests, marches and even being arrested. Although these methods were not wholly in line with Christ’s activities during His earthly ministry, King was sufficiently perspicacious to realize and accept that the differences between his situation and Jesus’ warranted this deviation from what some considered an unimpeachable example. His mission and the Son’s were not one and the same.

   In this sense we again see Rauchenbusch’s influence on King’s theistic inclinations. By combining it with Christian theology King vitalized social gospel, making it (and using the black church as a vehicle) a viable instrument of societal reformation. This message ignited in those who heard a desire to take action–it was a call much in the mold of King’s namesake centuries earlier when he set off the Protestant Reformation. King realized the best way for him and his adherents to get their prayers answered was to rise from their knees and get busy. Since the abolition of slavery each succeeding generation of black Americans had become increasingly sick of their country’s entrenched racial injustice. By the time King came along the time was ripe for redress, and his charisma and powerful (and hence compelling) message of positive change via non-violent efforts may have saved the nation from another civil war. Black America was seriously, justifiably fed up with the situation, and King’s strong yet mollifying influence may have saved America from a coast-to-coast upheaval reminiscent of the Russian Revolution. Christian theology, again, was the basis for this salvation.

   Black clergymen and congregations who participated in the struggle versus intolerance, injustice and segregation recognized and implemented King’s personal theology of achieving their goal by proffering a message of hope not only for sipritual salvation, but of another era of Reconstruction in this life. This revived hope in masses of the racially downtrodden who had given in to despair after centuries of inequitude. The Christian faith could bring them not only a blessed hereafter, but a better life in this world.

   The suffering servant example set by Jesus was another messianic precept he was careful to follow.

   Careful to not set himself as a demigogue, King saw himself not so much as a leader to his followers and admirers, but as their ambassador to the powered elite. Taking stock of this role early on (and accepting it fully) he wrote on his application to Crozer Theological Seminary:

   “My call to the ministry was quite different from most explanations I’ve heard. This decision came about in the summer of 1944 when I felt an inescapable urge to serve society. In short, I felt a sense of responsibility which I could not escape.”

   By perceiving and yielding to this call to serve society, and by also giving in to his sense of responsibility, King followed in the footsteps of a lineage of Baptist leaders who had resisted slavery and then promoted social uplift for freed slaves and their descendants. Although the Baptist denominations have no central authority (every Baptist church is autonomous,) the Baptist church had long held to a tradition of social equality as proclaimed from the pulpit by King’s father and grandfather. His anchoring in the black Baptist church’s theology and doctrines enabled him to navigate with complete sincerity through his careers in the church and the civil rights movement. He never gave in to anything except convictions of honor and good sense. By faultlessly practicing what he preached his image (and its crucial effectiveness) could never be tarnished by accusations of hypocrisy. This also proved invaluable when he spoke out against the Vietnam War, which he saw as a drain on national resources that could have been better used to combat such domestic ills as racism, poverty and overall oppression. It is intriguing to consider the possible implications of his having survived.

   His theology would have been compelled to address such issues as sexuality, HIV/AIDS, the ongoing, international divisions between rich and poor, ongoing problems in race relations, gender equality, the lingering war in the Middle East, and a plethora of such matters plaguing a world constantly growing smaller, more complicated, and volatile. The theology he practiced in the 1960s was sound, faith-based and wholesome enough to have made this world, which is rushing toward the apocalypse outlined in the Revelation of St. John, a better place. Although he was a young man who did not have a long career behind him, one that would have established in his soul a deeply rooted (by time and practice) spiritual base, he practiced a theology that exuded the influence of the Holy Trinity. Again, this is a philosophy that will never become outmoded, and would surely have been a positive, profound influence on an America that many have now come to regard as a post-Christian society.

   Why the Lord called this faithful servant home so early is not for us to understand (1 Corinthians 2:16.) We still have the legacy of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and that of his theology.

   We need only to use it.

Bibliography

Carson, Clayborne. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the African-American Social Gospel, from African-American Christianity: Essays in History, (editor) Paul E. Johnson, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Fairclough, Adam. To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr., Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Franklin, Robert M. Another Day’s Journey: Black Churches Confronting the American Crisis, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Strength to Love, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. The Trumpet of Conscience, San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1967.

Morris, Aldon. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, New York: The Free Press, 1963.

Paris, Peter J. Black Religious Leaders: Conflict in Unity, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

Rauschenbusch, Walter. A Theology for the Social Gospel, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1945.

Trussell, Jacqueline. Standing On Big Shoulders, BlacklandChristian.com, January 2001.

Weaver, Reverend Christine Whalen. Lord, Let the Works I’ve Done Speak for Me, BlacklandChristian.com, October 2000.

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