Our pastor wrote an essay about Martin Luther King that I found really helpful. It takes about 10 minutes to read. I'll give you a quote that stuck out to me just in case you don't have the time to read the whole thing.
"Our nation could never have ended systemic racism apart from a pastor publicly proclaiming the Bible in the civil arena. Let this fact linger: The civil rights movement was driven by a pastor who wanted to apply the Bible in the public square! King rightly saw the church as the most powerful social institution for bringing about cultural transformation; he rightly believed that social justice could not be found apart from Jesus and his teachings."
On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it’s appropriate for Christians to reflect on the meaning and lessons of King’s life. Of course, it is next to impossible to sort out the man himself form the aura that has come to surround him. King has become something of a symbol, representing freedom and equality before the law. Obviously, these are ideals that every Christian should support. Many aspects of King’s “dream” resonate with us as believers. In King’s own words, a man should be judged by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin.
But what happens when we evaluate King himself by that standard? The man himself is a highly complex, even contradictory figure. On the one hand, “rightwingers” have attacked King as a Marxist, a theological liberal, a sexual libertine, and an academic cheater. Of course, to say anything negative about King is to run is to risk facing the charge of racism (a ploy that I doubt King himself would approve of), but also need to deal with the facts of history honestly. On the other hand, King has been hailed as an “American hero” (by Ron Paul), an “evangelical Christian” (by Chuck Colson), and a “Christian martyr” (by many branches of the church). His agenda and his lifestyle – as well as his untimely death – made him into a worldwide icon of human rights and civil justice, and rightfully so. What are we to make of the man and movement he led?
I am by no means an expert on King, and may have many things wrong, but I’ll share a few thoughts here. It’s risky to address such a controversial figure, but I will try my best to be “fair and balanced,” as the saying goes.
The first thing to note about King is that he was a pastor. The American civil rights movement was, first and foremost, a church-based, rather than politically-based, movement. The most effective challenge to racism in our culture came from a pastor who used his pen and pulpit to bring an end to unjust forms of segregation. It took a pastor to do what politicians could not. King’s life proves the truth of Herman Melville’s dictum: “The pulpit is the prow of culture.” Despite King’s liberal theological tendencies, one thing that strikes me every time I read something by him is how much his public rhetoric consistently invokes the Scriptures as an authority, challenging systemic racism on a biblical basis. King used biblical language and imagery, calling on his hearers, black and white, to more faithfully put their Christian faith into practice. King called Christians to enact the alternative politics of the gospel. His “I Have Dream Speech” is largely a call for an ethic of imitatio Christi, based on the principle that only the love of Christ can reconcile oppressed and oppressors, and bring them together at a shared table as brothers.
King allowed the Bible to shape his own agenda. King refused to allow violence on the part of whites to serve as an excuse for African-American counter-violence. He condemned self-righteousness in his own community, calling for confession and repentance on both sides of the segregation line. He resisted other African-American leaders, who called for violent revolution, saying such a response, however “understandable” would “destroy their own souls” and make them mirror images of their oppressors. He told his followers to love their enemies, as Jesus commanded, even if it meant great suffering. King believed the true social revolution would not come through force, but through charity and forgiveness. In the face of all kinds of opposition, he said, “We are still determined to use the weapon of love.” And with that weapon, he won the battle of his life.
The media today tends to blame the church and the Bible for bigotry (and everything else that’s gone wrong in our nation’s history), but we should make the counterpoint that King himself did not see it that way. He believed only the Bible and the gospel message could save us from our prejudices. He believed the church was the chief agent of cultural change in the world. Note his famous lines from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
There was a time when the church was very powerful -- in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.
In another place, King wrote:
The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will. But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace. Men far and near will know the church as a great fellowship of love that provides light and bread for lonely travelers at midnight.
King challenged the church to live out her calling. He challenged both blacks and whites to listen to the Bible, and to take their faith more seriously, not less seriously. Christian faith did not create bigotry, it killed it. King showed prejudiced Christians were contradicting their own creed. Note that he did not challenge racism in the name of secularism. Had his message been, “All truth is relative, so people should do what is right in their own eyes when it comes to the race question,” nothing would have happened. Instead, King acted as a biblical absolutist (at least in public rhetoric), appealing regularly to Amos and the Sermon on the Mount. Consider these words from his sermon, “A Knock at Midnight”:
It is also midnight within the moral order. At midnight colors lose their distinctiveness and become a sullen shade of grey. Moral principles have lost their distinctiveness. For modern man, absolute right and wrong are a matter of what the majority is doing. Right and wrong are relative to likes and dislikes and the customs of a particular community. We have unconsciously applied Einstein’s theory of relativity, which properly described the physical universe, to the moral and ethical realm.
Midnight is the hour when men desperately seek to obey the eleventh commandment, “Thou shalt not get caught.” According to the ethic of midnight, the cardinal sin is to be caught and the cardinal virtue is to get by. It is all right to lie, but one must lie with real finesse. It is all right to steal, if one is so dignified that, if caught, the charge becomes embezzlement, not robbery. It is permissible even to hate, if one so dresses his hating in the garments of love that hating appears to be loving. The Darwinian concept of the survival of the fittest has been substituted by a philosophy of the survival of the slickest. This mentality has brought a tragic breakdown of moral standards, and the midnight of moral degeneration deepens....
King did not privatize his Christian faith; he wore it on his sleeve and openly appealed to explicitly biblical principles. Our nation could never have ended systemic racism apart from a pastor publicly proclaiming the Bible in the civil arena. Let this fact linger: The civil rights movement was driven by a pastor who wanted to apply the Bible in the public square! King rightly saw the church as the most powerful social institution for bringing about cultural transformation; he rightly believed that social justice could not be found apart from Jesus and his teachings. (You could even say King was an ecclesiocentric theonomist of sorts.)
This is important from an apologetic standpoint. The civil rights movement, at its best, was thoroughly undergirded by the church and the Bible. But today this fact is totally overlooked by most Americans. Many American citizens today, including both Christians and non-Christians, marginalize the church’s social role and fear any public use of the Bible at all. It may be fine to use the Bible for developing private morals, but not for defining public justice. King shows us how wrong-headed that is. We cannot expect to have a just society if we reject God and his Word. While many conservative theologians in the centuries previous had tried to use the Bible to justify not merely slavery but racism, King showed that the teaching of the Bible actually demanded something very different. And for that courageous stand, he should be praised and imitated.
What, then, of the man’s shortcomings? Virtually all scholars now agree that King had numerous moral failings. He was indeed guilty of plagiarizing, both as an undergraduate and in graduate school. A case could be made that his academic infelicities were due more to sloppiness and overwork than a willful intent to deceive. He did not hide his plagiarizing very much, and he was certainly intelligent enough to do his own work. But in the end, nothing excuses these academic improprieties. The only question is why his work did not create an academic scandal while he was student. It is a shocking indictment of the system that King got away with so much.
There is also no doubt that King drifted leftward in his theology, though just how much is not clear. He was raised in a very theologically conservative context, another Baptist minister in a long line of Baptist ministers. But even as a teenager he shocked Sunday School teachers (not to mention his father!) when he began to question the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the doctrine of original sin. His theological views do not seem to have ever been stable for long, as his mind was continually pulled in a liberal direction by his modernist education, even as his theological instincts remained conservative due to the influence of his heritage. There is considerable evidence that he eventually moved back to more conservative positions as he aged. In 1965, he wrote:
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.
Despite his participation in the modernist project of trying to conform Christian doctrine to “scientific” criteria, he never totally shook off the basic orthodoxy of his fathers. But wherever King ended up on the theological spectrum, there is no doubt about his lasting influence. Sadly, King’s movement towards the liberalism had a very negative impact of the Africa-American church, opening the door to unorthodox liberationist theology.
Politically, King never reconciled in his mind or in his writings the Christian principle of non-violent protest, applying the Sermon on the Mount, with his quasi-socialist views, in which government force would ultimately be used to redistribute wealth. On the one hand, King espoused a non-violent plan for cultural transformation, and openly critiqued Marxism’s pragmatic ethic. On the other hand, he came to expect more from the state than it could ever deliver. Sadly, King’s political legacy includes not just love for enemies, but the welfare state, which has wreaked great havoc on America’s poor. Because the state can only treat surface level symptoms of poverty, rather than root causes, the state can be, at most, a merciful safety net for people (see Daniel 4:27). But in the modern welfare state, the government ends up subverting the family structure by subsidizing immorality (see 2 Thessalonians 3:9). The state becomes a substitute for husbands and fathers, contrary to God’s design for a healthy society (see 1 Timothy 5:8). America’s cities are now rife with the implications of such a misguided program.
King’s marital infidelity has also been well documented. What is not so clear is how these immoral actions related to his theological and political views and how repentant King was in their aftermath. Sadly, many other African-American leaders began to use King’s indiscretions to justify their own sexual promiscuity. His example had a devastating trickle-down effect.
What are we to make of this? King shows us the incredible influence of great men, especially great churchmen, for good or for ill in a society. King’s positive traits should be celebrated and imitated. King transformed American culture for the better by proclaiming the Bible’s teaching on race in the public square. From this standpoint, he is not just an American hero, he is a Christian hero. He reminds us what the church can do when she faithful, bold, and prophetic. But King also shows that great men can do the greatest damage. The far reaching effects of his liberal tendencies still cripple us in many ways down to this day, in both church and state. Like all of us, King was a broken vessel and a crooked stick. But like all of us, God showed through King that he can use even imperfect instruments to further his purposes, as he pleases. The final assessment of King’s life must left to the only Judge who knows our hearts completely.
King’s final words before being shot on the balcony of the Lorraine hotel in Memphis were spoken to musician Ben Branch, who was scheduled to perform that night at an event King was attending: “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
Personally, one thing I have noticed is that King gets so much attention, he overshadows other equally important African-American heroes. These alternative heroes should get their due. For example, I believe a case could be made that Booker T. Washington is one of the four or five greatest Americans to ever live. But how much do people know about him today? Washington’s political agenda for the African-American community was quite different from King’s in many ways. But he was driven by the same Christ-like love and had in view the same goal of biblically-mandated equality and freedom for everyone before the law. Washington, more than King, stressed personal responsibility and work ethic. Unlike King, he did not turn to the state for solutions to what he perceived to be mainly spiritual problems. But like King, he believed community (especially the church) was crucial to social transformation, and he wanted African-Americans to be patient and forgiving towards the sins of white racists. Washington’s life is most certainly worthy of honor and emulation.
Perhaps the best way to conclude is with this Anglican collect for April 4 (the day of King’s assassination in 1968):
Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last; Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.