Thursday, April 3, 2008

M.L. King's theological journey

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?


Anonymous said...

It's a shame that black leadership has forgotten the underlying message of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X -- that of "get off your butts and stop relying on others to do for you."

Jesse, Al, are in no way followers of MLK in this regard.

D.J. said...

The article was definitely an interesting read – thanks for the link.

Per theological development, certainly my ideas and understanding of who God is have changed throughout my life as I have come to better grasp the Scriptures. However, the idea that “theological development” is a virtue in-and-of-itself is one that I am very wary of. My development has been a seeking to conform myself more fully to who God is (a reality external to myself that has been revealed to humanity through the perfect witness of Scripture and creation), not a seeking to develop a concept of God that best fits my personal sensibilities and my outlook on the world. It is because of this view of the faith that I am deeply troubled by much of the theology of Dr. King.

This is bound to make me extremely unpopular and likely to invite some hyperbolic charges and criticism, so let me be as plain and clear as possible: as a social activist, King is nigh unparalleled. His accomplishments are worthy of great thanks and admiration from Americans of all races. However, as a theologian and minister, I find his work severely problematic. King denied several core tenets of the historic Christian faith, namely the divinity of Christ, his virgin birth, his bodily resurrection, and his future coming. I believe that these truths are clearly taught in Scripture, and have been seen by the church throughout history as essential to understanding the person and work of Christ. King’s work was instrumental in freeing many people from oppression, as was the work of one of his heroes, Ghandi. However, King’s gospel, as well as Ghandi’s, as far as I can tell from his writing and preaching, is powerless to address the most fundamental need of the human heart – freedom from the condemnation of sin through the free grace given through faith in Christ’s redemptive death and resurrection.

I say these things with the utmost care, since many look up to King as one of their greatest heroes. Concerning King the social activist, I share those admirations. Concerning King the theologian, I find him an example of the sad tend of humanity to disregard God’s self-revelation and rebuild him in our image.

Soli Deo Gloria

Iztok said...

Wow I can't believe I actually agree with DJ :)

I think MLK had plenty of secular in him. He surrounded himself with secularists (two organizers of March on Washington were secularists for example).

This is however the reason why I think MLK was so great in the first place.

Searcher said...

Like most, I believe in God. I just haven’t found him among all the doctrines that have been theorized to support a once-hopeful monotheistic religion now made unduly complex.

My religiosity has gone from joining for the sake of belonging – the safety in numbers theology - to abject skepticism, to a liberal theology a la Frederick Ernst Daniel Schleiermacher, who rejected the orthodox doctrine of Christ, seeing him merely a great teacher inspired by God. Sometimes I feel that if Judaism weren’t so clannish, or Islam so stifling, that I’d fit better there. Maybe I’m just going through “phases” of the long journey Dr. King made before arriving at his understanding of God. Maybe I’ll eventually get back to where I started.

Right now I’m puzzled as to how one God can have a personal relationship with millions of followers. Does God conform to each of us?

D.J. said...


First off, I’d encourage you to continue in your search. Many people sadly go through this life without ever asking themselves “the big questions,” much less knowing who Schleiermacher was. My advice to you would be not to seek a faith where you fit, but to find the truth of who God is and conform yourself to fit it. This is the ultimate call of Christ, that “whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

I’m intrigued by your closing question. What do you mean by ‘conform’? That would probably help me to try and answer it more clearly.

Soli Deo Gloria

Iztok said...

MLK started a great movement. He and all African Americans struggled and it ultimately payed off. Reminds me of a modern struggle gays and especially atheists have today in this country. As with MLK and rights of African Americans for equal treatment we'll see in the future rights of gays and esp. atheists that are suppressed in this country will ultimately prevail. All we are asking is equal treatment. All MLK was asking is equal treatment.

As with MLK a bullet can't kill a dream.

David McKnight said...

Yes, there was a serenity, nurtured by religious faith, to Dr. King's manner of speaking on even the most socially urgent issues of those decades of the 1950s and 1960s when he was carrying on his missions both as a minister and as an advocate for political justice in America.

Dr. King also had an exceptional sense of "timing" in his leadership advocacy of various pending changes in the laws of the land and the proper reading of implications of judicial decisions in the recent past emanating from the landmark Brown decision of 1954. In this regard, Martin Luther King Jr. reflected the steady-as-you-go traditions of "all deliberate speed" inherent in the U.S. judicial tradition as applied to interpretations of questions of legal rectitude and constitutional justice in American society.

Presidents who heard personal appeals from Dr. King from the Eisenhower administration through the Kennedy and Johnson years no doubt understood that King knew both that the people had to be prepared politically for the march to justice but that at the critical moment, this march could not be put off until some other day.

This combined theological training and intellectual understanding of the proper relationship between religion and politics in this country, as well as the most appropriate means of realizing change at the proper pace of political administration from the federal to the state and local levels of government, enabled Dr. King to add to the just reasoning of his advocacy an effectiveness in the actual content of the change in question so that once brought onto the stage of the actual political and constitutional process, these moves toward greater equality and justice could merit and secure the respect of the American people in a way that would render their application more permanent rather than more fleeting, more enduring rather than more ephemeral.

Likewise, Dr. King's extensive study and mastery of political and philosophical ideals and principles from so many other societies around the world from anicent times to the modern age enabled him to paint the portrait of the march for justice within the black community in America with a rainbow of colors bringing an important sense of universality to the images of hope and progress ultimately appearing on this treasured canvas.

Thus there was no need for any American of any ethic background, religious faith or political philosophy to feel separated from the particular movement for change which was born in the African-American communities of the American South and led to its earliest stages of realization by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Perhaps this then is our greatest challenge today, to re-invigorate the quest for civil rights and individual justice and equality with assurances to all citizens that not only does everyone have a stake in the advance of this crusade but also that no person should be denied a sense of belonging to this inspirational processional.