Every adult American can hear in their minds the voice, rhetorical skills, and moving words of the late Martin Luther King, Jr. He had the ability to move people with his spoken words in a manner possible of few people in history. He made the phrase, “I have a dream,” forever a part of the American experience.
Behind King’s powerful spoken words lay a theological and philosophical grounding that shaped him while growing up in the segregated South. The 1955-1956 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, pushed King into the limelight at age 26. The particular talents and skills of King died with him in 1968, but today we can build on the same practical and theological foundations upon which he built his life.
King and Black Preaching
King’s calling as a Baptist preacher is fundamental to understanding his life and the potential that a pastoral calling can possess for the broader society. Roger L. Shinn connected King to the Old Testament tradition saying, “God in times of human need sometimes ‘raises up’ a prophet, a judge, a deliverer, a priest, or a shepherd. . . . So it was with the rise of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Before King’s rise, “who would have predicted that one of the great social leaders of this [the twentieth] century . . . would be a black Baptist preacher? But that is what happened.” William D. Watley said: “At his core, King was neither philosopher nor academician nor organizational administrator. He was essentially a black preacher. To be more precise, he was essentially a black pastor.”
Raphael Gamaliel Warnock, a later senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, quoted King as saying that 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.”
It is simply impossible to understand the life and work of King without comprehending the deep impact in his life left by the tradition of African American preaching and his sense of calling to participate in that tradition. That tradition, of course, is tied to the broader African American Christian and religious heritage.
King and Nonviolence
Many people know of King as a champion of nonviolence. Peter J. Paris notes, however, that this was not new to the African American church. The “concept of nonviolence as promulgated by Martin Luther King, Jr., was not alien to the black churches. . . . In fact, King was merely explicating and implementing the traditional means of protest long practiced by the black churches under the black Christian tradition.”
King’s first speech of the Montgomery bus boycott illustrates that the principle he espoused was not rooted in a secular or non-Christian philosophy. He did not use the word “nonviolence” in the speech, but he eschewed violence from a Christian perspective. “And I want to say that we are not here advocating violence,” King said. “I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are Christian people. We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus.”
King eventually set forth six “basic aspects” of the philosophy of nonviolence in his book, Stride Toward Freedom, about the boycott.
1) Nonviolent resistance is “not a method for cowards; it does resist.”
2) It “does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.”
3) The “attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil.”
4) Nonviolent resistance includes a “willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back.”
5) It “avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him.”
6) It is “based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future.”
King honed his ethic of nonviolence through the various crises of the civil rights movement—Montgomery, Albany, Birmingham, and Selma. “King’s novelty was in his method of mass demonstrations and bringing Gandhi’s thought about nonviolent resistance into positive relationship with the black Christian tradition,” Paris says. The nonviolent nature of King’s efforts also helped gain support for the movement among whites.
King and Malcolm X both understood black rage. Malcolm wanted to use that rage to build a separate society, at least at the beginning of his public efforts. King, however, “concluded that black rage was so destructive and self-destructive that without a broad moral vision and political organization, black rage would wreak havoc on black America,” Cornel West says. King’s “nonviolent resistance to white racism was an attempt to channel black rage in political directions that preserved black dignity and changed American society.”
King and Love
In King’s discussion of the fifth aspect of nonviolence, he explores the topic of love from a New Testament perspective. “Along the way of life,” King wrote, “someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.” King clarified that he was not speaking of “some sentimental or affectionate emotion,” but rather as a connection that “means understanding, redemptive goodwill.”
African American theologian J. Deotis Roberts called love the “key concept” in King’s worldview. “King had a passionate commitment to the love ethic in his theology,” Roberts said. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, noted that King’s “belief in a divine, loving presence that binds all life” provided the “central element” of King’s philosophy of nonviolence. Roberts questioned the depth of King’s doctrine of agape, but said King “overcomes many of our theoretical concerns as his ethical theology bears fruit through action.” Mrs. King made this same connection in calling her late husband an “apostle of love” and an “apostle of action.”
King understood the relationship between love and justice. In his first speech of the Montgomery bus boycott, King said: “And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.”
King and Community
In King’s treatment of love in Stride Toward Freedom, he connects it to community. He repeats “community” thirteen times in one paragraph, thus pointing to the importance of community in his thinking. “Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it. . . . Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community.”
A key phrase surfaces often in King and writings about him—”beloved community.” He did not coin the phrase; it surfaced earlier in the 20th century through philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce. In his book about the Montgomery bus boycott, King wrote, “The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.” He contrasted beloved community with broken community. “But something must happen so to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right.” In beloved community, there will be “genuine intergroup and interpersonal living.”
King and Theology
Watley provides a succinct way of understanding the broad theological concepts that shaped King’s life and ministry. Watley identifies four themes in King’s theology: 1) The universe has a moral order; 2) God works in history; 3) Human life is essentially social; and 4) Personality is a key to understanding God and humankind.
1) The universe has a moral order. King “believed in moral absolutes and rejected any system of theological relativities,” Watley said. “He decried any ethic whose principles or standards were either governed by the logic of the situation or were determined by majority consensus.” In his sermon, “A Knock at Midnight,”‘ King said: “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 absolute wrong are a matter of what the majority is doing.”
2) God works in history. King rooted his faith in history, both in seeing God at work in the past and expecting God to work in the present. The Exodus story from Scripture provided a key historical example of God’s care for the oppressed and the possibility of deliverance. “The Exodus drama was tailor-made for those like King who believed that God was not just involved in the historical; God was actually directing the events of history,” Watley said. In writing about the bus boycott in Montgomery, King said: “There is a creative power that works to pull down mountains of evil and level hilltops of injustice. God still works through history His wonders to perform.”
3) Human life is essentially social. King “affirmed the social character of existence,” Watley wrote. In his sermon, “The Man Who Was a Fool,” King said: “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.” King developed a theology that recognized the essential social character of human life and also understood that human sinfulness made justice difficult in social settings. David J. Garrow said, “King argued that one must adopt both the ethical love emphasis of [Walter] Rauschenbusch and the realists’ stress upon political power.”
4) Personality is a key to understanding God and humankind. Personalism insists that “only personality—finite and infinite—is ultimately real,” King wrote. King “spent his entire ministerial vocation applying personalistic principles to practical solutions to the triple menaces of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism,” said Rufus Burrow, Jr., King “developed his own interpretation of personalism,” one that reflected the black church tradition, J. Deotis Roberts said. The human personality is not above the divine personality. “The worth of the individual . . . is based upon one’s relatedness to God. God, through creating humans in the image of God’s self, has bestowed upon humans equal worth.”
Rooted in this philosophical foundation, King viewed segregation as depersonalizing, both for the oppressed and the oppressor, but particularly on the former. As a result, the “ministry of personalism, in a practical as well as theoretical way, has been and continues to be one of the essential ingredients of the ministry of the black church,” said Watley, who summed up King’s view by noting, “Personality is developed within the context of community,” which connects this philosophy to King’s views on love and community.
King for Today
The Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-1956 launched King onto the national stage. The success of the boycott marked the first time African Americans had challenged the white establishment through direct action and won. It essentially launched that aspect of thecivil rights movement.
Paris views King as among those African Americans whose “rhetoric has served to express the wrath of the race’s prophets” who were “deeply loyal to the biblical view of humanity which, they were convinced, had been affirmed by the nation’s founding fathers.”
This perspective of viewing King as channeling wrath against injustice through a “biblical view of humanity” can be helpful to all Christians angered by injustice. Many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, are aware of King’s nonviolent methodology. This is important, but it is only a method of living out a Christian ethic that seeks to establish beloved community.
Charles Marsh sees the civil rights movement, as expressed through King’s involvement, as “part of God’s larger movement in the world.” It started with Abraham in the Old Testament and continued through the New Testament and church history.
The church today can find theological justification and direction for its actions against injustice by recalling the major themes of King’s theology.
Of course, King was not a perfect man. His reputation has been sullied because of revelations of extramarital sexual encounters and use of plagiarized material. Christians can understand these failings and recognize King as what he was—a sinful man who pursued the great causes of God in his cultural context.
King represented a powerful voice for justice rooted in the African American church experience and the biblical faith. We can give assent to his words and his work while knowing he struggled with sin as do all people.
(Note: This post was adapted from Ferrell Foster’s doctoral project at Logsdon Theological Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University.)