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We Christians still have a problem faced by the first disciples of Christ. We have a hard time, a very hard time, casting out evil.
In the New Testament, this is recorded in Matthew 17:19-20. The disciples could not heal a boy, and they did not understand why.
Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it [an evil spirit] out?”He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of amustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (NRSV).
Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a memorable sermon from this story in Scripture. He did not go into all the varied questions and implications of the verses, but he used it to make a broader point about our inability to get rid of the evil we encounter in the world. The sermon is “The Answer to a Perplexing Question,” and it is available online and in a book of MLK’s sermons, The Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012)
The question: “How can evil be cast out?”
King said people usually pursue “two paths to eliminate evil and thereby save the world.” Some people try to remove evil through their “own power and ingenuity.” They think science, reason, and other human efforts alone can combat evil.
A second approach relies only on God to remove evil. People who adopt this perspective wait “submissively upon the Lord,” believing “God alone will redeem the world.”
King said the “Reformation wrongly affirmed that the image of God had been completely erased from man.” Taken too far, and Christians may sit back and wait on God to fix the problem of evil in the world. “By ignoring the need for social reform, religion is divorced from the mainstream of human life.”
The idea that man expects God to do everything leads inevitably to a callous misuse of prayer. For if God does everything, man then asks him for anything, and God becomes little more than a “cosmic bellhop” who is summoned for every trivial need. Or God is considered so omnipotent and man so powerless that prayer is a substitute for work and intelligence. . . .
God, who gave us minds for thinking and bodies for working, would defeat his own purpose if he permitted us to obtain through prayer what may come through work and intelligence. Prayer is a marvelous and necessary supplement of our feeble efforts, but it is a dangerous substitute. . . .
Man is no helpless invalid left in a valley of total depravity until God pulls him out. Man is rather an upstanding human being whose vision has been impaired by the cataracts of sin and whose soul has been weakened by the virus of pride, but there is sufficient vision left for him to lift his eyes unto the hills, and there remains enough of God’s image for him to turn his weak and sin-battered life toward the Great Physician, the curer of the ravages of sin.
King said the proper approach to combatting evil in the world is a joining of the work of God and humankind. God and God’s people, “made one in a marvelous unity of purpose through an overflowing love as the free gift of himself on the part of God and by perfect obedience and receptivity on the part of man, can transform the old into the new and drive out the deadly cancer of sin.”
Faith “opens the door for God to work through man.” King talked of two types of faith. The “mind’s faith” involves the intellect. The “heart’s faith” involves a “trusting act of self-surrender.” “To know God, a man must possess this latter type of faith, for the mind’s faith is directed toward a theory, but the heart’s faith is centered in a Person.”
All people, as sinners, have their own personal battles with evil, but there are social evils to be addressed. “Man filled with God and God operating through man bring unbelievable changes in our individual and social lives,” King said.
King focused much of his attention on the social sin of racial injustice. Justice, he said, “will come neither by our frail and often misguided efforts nor by God imposing his will on wayward men, but when enough people open their lives to God and allow him to pour his triumphant, divine energy into their souls.
(This post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists web site.)
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.)
In 2010, a story in The New York Times noted that the song, “Kumbaya,” had lately been “transformed into snarky shorthand for ridiculing a certain kind of idealism, a quest for common ground.”
I remember singing the song in the 1960s, and we loved it. It was no joke; it called us toward something better than what we knew. I did not initially know that “kumbaya” meant “come by here” and was meant as a prayer to God.
“Come By Here” is a song “deeply rooted in black Christianity’s vision of a God who intercedes to deliver both solace and justice,” The NY Times piece said.
The oldest known recording of the spiritual occurred in the spring of 1926 when a “nearly broke” Robert Winslow Gordon ”captured the sound of someone identified only as H. Wylie, singing a lilting, swaying spiritual in the key of A. The lyrics told of people in despair and in trouble, calling on heaven for help, and beseeching God in the refrain, ‘Come by here’,” the Times said.
“Whenever somebody jokes about ‘Kum Bah Ya,’ my mind goes back to the Mississippi summer experience where the movement folks in Mississippi were inviting co-workers to come from all over the country, especially student types, to come and help in the process of voter registration and Freedom School teaching and taking great risks on behalf of the transformation of that state and of this nation. There were two weeks of orientation. The first week was the week in which Schwerner and Goodman and their beloved brother Jimmy were there. And it was during the time that they had left the campus that they were first arrested, then released, and then murdered.
“The word came back to us at the orientation that the three of them had not been heard from. Bob Moses, the magnificent leader of so much of the work in Mississippi, got up and told these hundreds of predominantly white young people that, if any of them felt that at this point they needed to return home or to their schools, we would not think less of them at all, but would be grateful to them for how far they had come.
“But he said let’s take a couple of hours just for people to spend time talking on the phone with parents or whoever to try to make this decision and make it now. What I found as I moved around among the small groups that began to gather together to help each other was that, in group after group, people were singing, ‘Kum Bah Ya, come by here, my Lord, somebody’s missing, Lord, come by here. We all need you, Lord, come by here.’
‘I could never laugh at Kum Bah Ya moments after that because I saw then that almost no one went home from there. They were going to continue on the path that they had committed themselves to and a great part of the reason why they were able to do that was because of the strength and the power and the commitment that had been gained through that experience of just singing together ‘Kum Bah Ya.”
African American spirituals speak a deep message even when the words are simple. They arose out of a life-denying experience that gave birth to deep trust in God in the face of inhumane treatment by other humans.
Kumbaya. Come by here, my Lord. Come by here.
(This post originally appeared on the texasbaptists.org site.)