Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Martin Luther King Jr., Christian, Part 3

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Theological Journey

There is much debate, at least in the Twitterverse, about Martin Luther King, Jr’s theological beliefs (and political stance; more on that later). He outlined his theological journey in “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”, published in the magazine Christian Century, April 13, 1960, which itself was a restatement of chapter 6 of Strive Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958). I read it in The Essential Martin Luther King, Jr.: "I Have a Dream" and Other Great Writings, pp. 70-80. The title of the piece tells you that he’s explaining why he espouses nonviolence, but this “pilgrimage” tells us a lot about his theology.

Martin Luther King Jr. at the Stars for Freedom tour benefitting the SCLC,
Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, photographed by Bob Fitch on October 15, 1967.
From Stanford University Libraries Department of Special Collections and University Archives

King says he was “raised in a rather strict fundamentalistic tradition” so that he was occasionally shocked, but always stimulated, by discovering new doctrines in seminary. He says it knocked him out of his “dogmatic slumber.” He became a “thoroughgoing liberal” due to the “devotion to the search for truth” and reason.

However, he writes “It was mainly the liberal doctrine of man that I began to question. The more I observed the tragedies of history and man’s shameful inclination to choose the low road, the more I came to see the depths and strength of sin. My reading of the works of Reinhold Niebuhr made me aware of the complexity of human motives and the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence. Moreover, I came to recognize the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil.” He also found that “liberalism’s superficial optimism concerning human nature caused it to overlook the fact that reason is darkened by sin.” Reason becomes rationalization. “Reason, devoid of purifying power of faith, can never free itself from distortions and rationalizations.”

He then was drawn to “neo-orthodoxy,” but it was “too pessimistic.” He studied the existentialists, notably Kierkegaard, and found their “understanding of the ‘finite freedom’ of man” to be “one of existentialism’s most lasting contributions.” King writes that “man’s existential situation is a state of estrangement from his essential nature.”

Meanwhile, his concern for racial injustice, especially segregation, drew him towards social ethics. “I had also learned that the inseparable twin of racial injustice is economic injustice. I saw how the systems of segregation ended up in the exploitation of the Negro as well as the poor whites.” He was then influenced by the social gospel. “In the early fifties I read Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis, a book which left an indelible imprint on my thinking.” Though King questioned his optimism of “inevitable progress,” and “felt he came perilously close to identifying the kingdom of God with a particular social and economic system,” he gave “American Protestantism a sense of social responsibility.”

King writes that “any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.” I am reminded of James 2:14-16:

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

King also felt that the “turn the other check” philosophy (Matthew 5:39) and the “love your enemies” philosophy (Matthew 5:44) was valid in interpersonal conflict, but not “when racial groups and nations” are in conflict.

Then he came upon Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance. King writes “The whole Gandhian concept of satyagraha (satya is truth which equals love, and graha is force; satyagraha thus means truth-force or love-force). King came to see that “the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” At the time, King had no plan to use this “weapon,” but a few years later, during the Montgomery bus boycott, “the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5-7] and the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance” returned to him. “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.”

Published in 1958 (after the Montgomery boycott), King finished the article reflecting on his spiritual state. “God has been profoundly real to me in recent months,” he wrote. “God is a living God. In him there is feeling and will, responsive to the deepest yearnings of the human heart: thus God both evokes and answers prayers…. In a dark, confused world, the spirit of God may yet reign supreme.”

Was King a Communist?

The FBI tried to paint him as one, using the fact that one of King’s closest advisors, Stanley Levison, and another SCLC member, Jack O’Dell, were former communists. King himself was never in the Communist Party nor identified as communist. However, he did criticize the Vietnam War as early as 1965, though only “personally,” and not “officially” with the SCLC until 1967. King had “thrown in with the commies” according to one of LBJ’s advisers (Bearing the Cross, p. 554). Many conservatives saw opposition to the war as communist-inspired due to North Vietnam being communist, aided by the USSR. But how could King preach nonviolence to his followers, yet agree with them being sent to kill in Vietnam? On April 4, 1967, he gave his first public antiwar speech:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government….

I… have to live with my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men—for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? (Autobiography, pp. 337-339)

After Montgomery, Selma, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Watts (Los Angeles) riots of 1965, King did turn to economic concerns.

Rustin recalled… “He was absolutely undone, and he looked at me and said, ‘You know, Bayard, I worked to get these people the right to eat hamburgers, and now I’ve got to do something … to help them get the money to buy it.’” (Bearing the Cross, p.439)

King had also been impressed by Sweden’s Democratic Socialist system, and began to think that something like that, or a minimum basic income would be the only way to get economic justice. In 1968, without much outside enthusiasm, he called for a Poor People’s Campaign:

Fretting about detailed demands was not necessary. “I don’t know what Jesus had as his demands other than ‘repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.’ My demand in Washington is ‘repent, America.’” King told his staff that “we live in a sick, neurotic nation,” but the Poor People’s Campaign was based upon “the hope that we can move this sick nation away from at least a level of its sickness.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 593)

The campaign had not begun in earnest when King was assassinated. A few months before that King said they had three demands:

The next morning King met with reporters to announce the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign. An overall goal would be a $30 billion annual appropriation for a comprehensive antipoverty effort, but an “absolute minimum” would be congressional passage of (1) a full-employment commitment, (2) a guaranteed annual income measure, and (3) construction funds for at least 500,000 units of low-cost housing per year. (Bearing the Cross, p. 595-596)

The Bible, Old and New Testaments, are replete with calls to help the poor and needy. I’ll just tag a few samples and give you some links:

Leave gleanings for the poor and stranger: Leviticus 19:10
Receive the poor and stranger: Leviticus 25:35
Defend the poor and fatherless, deliver the needy: Psalm 82:3-4
Give to the poor, the Lord repays: Proverbs 19:17
Woe to those who turn away the needy, poor, widows, and fatherless: Isaiah 10:1-2
Jesus says make feasts for the poor, maimed, and blind: Luke 14:12-14
Jesus says if you feed the hungry, you’ve fed him: Matthew 25:34-40
Believers shared gladly: Acts 2:44-46

Yet, as a Christian, King was opposed to Communism in its oppression of religion. In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he wrote “If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws.”

Was King a Prophet?

Who is a prophet? Many would be familiar with some of the Bible prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Jonah (of “whale” fame), Micah, Amos, and so on. Moses, Aaron, and Samuel are also called prophets in the Bible. Elijah and Elisha performed miracles, but many Biblical prophets do not. In the New Testament, John the Baptist, and even Jesus, are called prophets.

How does one qualify as a prophet? In the Bible, it is someone relaying the words of God to people. God has told them what to say, or put his words in their mouth (which saying comes from Jeremiah 1:9). Often these words are “woes” declared against idolatrous Israel. Often the prophets predict doom in the near future or peace in the distant future. How does one prove this? The Lord gives a few standards and warnings in the Bible:

When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him. Deuteronomy 18:22

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. [Jesus in] Matthew 7:15

Some Christian traditions believe that God stopped giving prophecy directly to prophets, and the only valid words of God are in the Bible. They hold that the “prophets” mentioned by Paul in his letters were temporary. They still believe that God can speak through the Holy Spirit to people, but that these words must agree with the Bible, which is “complete.” Others believe that there are modern-day prophets, some of whom can be found on YouTube.

A prophet would also “speak truth to power” in today’s jargon (possibly originating in a Quaker pamphlet by that name). The prophet Nathan confronted King David with his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah (2 Samuel 12:1-13). The prophet Micaiah, dissenting from the flattering “prophets,” tells King Ahab that he will be defeated in battle because it is the will of the Lord (1 Kings 22:6-40).

King did speak truth to power. He took the cause of civil rights to Vice President Nixon, President Eisenhower, President John F. Kennedy, Attorney-General and future candidate RFK, President Lyndon Johnson, and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. They didn’t always want to hear what he had to say. The entire Letter from a Birmingham Jail was a challenge to the established white churches.

King’s most famous speech is “I Have a Dream” from the 1963 March on Washington. Prophecies can come in the form of dreams or visions (Joel 2:28). King speaks of a future of peace and even quotes the prophets Isaiah and Amos.

Did King predict the future? As discussed in Moses and the Mountaintop, he seemed to know of his impending death. In 1966, King had this conversation:

King also met with movie producer Abby Mann, whom Harry Belafonte had recommended to film King’s life story. Mann was impressed by how King “seemed to be such an ordinary man,” and he asked King facetiously, “How does the movie end?” King responded, “It ends with me getting killed.” Mann was taken aback. “I looked at him. He was smiling but he wasn’t joking.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 469)

Did King think he was a prophet or at least had some prophetic responsibility? By late 1965, he was already concerned about the Vietnam War, but was trying to keep the SCLC out of the equation. Though he had:

no intention of making SCLC active in any peace effort, his ministerial role placed upon him prophetic as well as priestly responsibilities, King said. One of those prophetic obligations was to declare that “war is obsolete,” and opponents of that view should not confuse his “creative dissent” with disloyalty to the nation. (Bearing the Cross, p. 443)

Earlier in 1965, King had also mentioned that the Vietnam War was “accomplishing nothing” (Bearing the Cross, p. 394). By early 1966, he called the war “unwinnable.” This was well before the 1968 Tet offensive by the Viet Cong and North Vietnam against South Vietnam and their US allies, the subsequent “Cronkite moment,” and LBJ deciding not to run for reelection. (See Did the news media, led by Walter Cronkite, lose the war in Vietnam?).

Garry Wills writes: “Many people in the 1960s claimed that Dr. King had no right to speak out on the war. They wanted to confine him to ‘his’ concerns – to put limits around his citizen activity. Others, in the South, had earlier denied that he could speak legitimately even on civil rights: as a clergyman, they said, he should have confined himself to matters of private morality, not issues of public policy.” Later Wills states that “A modern prophet like Dr. King makes us understand the witness of those who found the ‘Christian state’ ungodly in its blessing of things like slavery.” (Under God, pp. 242, 383)

Continue to Part 4, including Bearing the Cross, Why Did King Die?, What About...?, and Conclusion.

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