Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated 40 years ago Friday, is remembered for many things: his soaring speeches that called America to live up its own ideals, his courageous leadership of the civil rights movement, his advocacy of nonviolence as a tactic against oppression.
What is sometimes forgotten is that he was a preacher first, and it was his views about the nature of God that led to his famous actions. It was the pulpit that propelled him to greatness.
How did those views form? I went looking for the answer and came across a fascinating article, "Martin Luther King, Jr., and the African-American Social Gospel," by Clayborn Carson. It details the evolution of King's views from an initial skepticism, even while enjoying the rituals and community of church, to an embrace of liberal theology, then a realization of that theology's limitations and a rediscovery of his own African American tradition. His religious views drew from both the intellectual approach of white academics and the emotional, personal religion of his roots.
What resulted was a powerful ability to speak truth to Americans of all races, and to speak that truth out of personal spiritual experience and conviction.
As the article relates:
Forging an eclectic synthesis from such diverse sources as personalism, theological liberalism, neo-orthodox theology, and the activist, Bible-centered religion of his heritage, King affirmed his abiding faith in a God who was both a comforting personal presence and a powerful spiritual force acting in history for righteousness. This faith would sustain him as the civil rights movement irreversibly transformed his life.
"I am many things to many people," King acknowledged in 1965, "but in the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher. This is my being and my heritage for I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher." Rather than being torn between mutually exclusive cultural traditions, King's public, transracial ministry marked a convergence of theological scholarship and social gospel practice.
I have now yet another reason to admire King, who sought understanding of God, was willing to let that understanding grow, and was empowered by what he found to transform a nation.
How has your theology changed and grown? How has it affected your life's work?