Monday, January 18, 2010

The Theology and Continued Relevance of Martin Luther King Jr.

Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions for our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
--Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Stockholm, Sweden, December 11, 1964.
Although his life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet at the age of 39, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a message of universal love and understanding. A fervent believer in Christian pacifism and nonviolent social change, by the time he died in 1968, King had led millions of people in shattering the legal system of racial segregation in the South and in exposing the economic and social inequities of the North. A powerfully passionate and effective advocate for racial justice and civil and human rights, he also was a leading voice of the peace movement that opposed the Vietnam War, and he remains one of the great moral voices of the Twentieth Century. However, what intellectual strains influenced King’s theology, and do they remain relevant today?

As a young seminary student, and throughout his life, King was impacted greatly (though by no means exclusively) by the Social Gospel movement of Walter Rauschenbusch. A ministry for the real world, the Social Gospel movement meant to bridge the gap between saving souls and saving lives, between the spiritual dimensions of religion and the Church’s obligation to seek justice and act as the moral conscience of society. Rauschenbusch, a progressive German-Lutheran turned Baptist minister, was profoundly affected by his ministry in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York in the late 1880’s, an experience that educated him on the injustices of poverty, educational deficiencies, and inequalities then prevalent in American society. In Christianity and the Social Crisis, one of the few books King would specifically cite as influencing his own theology, Rauschenbusch articulated the Christian duty to act in the spirit of love to improve social conditions.

As the minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and later at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King would emulate Rauschenbusch’s contention that the minister’s job is “to apply the teaching functions of the pulpit to the pressing questions of public morality.” Although critics denounced Rauschenbusch as a Utopian idealist, to King and others, the Social Gospel movement saved Christianity from irrelevance by defining social justice as the closest approximation of God’s kingdom on earth.

A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions. . . . Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.
--Martin Luther King Jr.
A similar, if later influence on King was his friendship in the 1960’s with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who joined with King in the struggle for civil rights in the South and in efforts to oppose American involvement in Vietnam. Writing on the topic of “Religion in a Free Society,” Heschel contended that “when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless” (The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967). As Heschel explained:

Religion has often suffered from the tendency to become an end in itself, to seclude the holy, to become parochial, self-indulgent, self-seeking; as if the task were not to ennoble human nature but to enhance the power and beauty of its institutions or to enlarge the body of doctrines. It has often done more to canonize prejudices than to wrestle for truth; to petrify the sacred than to sanctify the secular. Yet the task of religion is to be a challenge to the stabilization of values.
Heschel contended that the prophets of old “dwelt more on the affairs of the royal palace, on the ways and views of the courts of justice, than on the problems of the priestly rituals at the temple of Jerusalem.” The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures confronted the world as it existed, and were not concerned with the hereafter. For this reason, according to Heschel, “Tranquility is unknown to the soul of a prophet. The miseries of the world give him no rest.” As a modern-day prophet, King understood precisely that to which Heschel referred in challenging the realities of racism, discrimination, hatred, and prejudice. King’s was not a tranquil time and he had little occasion for rest.

In his ministry to the poor and oppressed, King found solace in the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. King spoke of universal, or agape love, based on the Greek word in the New Testament that referenced God’s love for humanity and which King believed was at the essence of Christianity – a selfless form of love that remains constant even if no love is reciprocated. While King professed that “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend,” he knew that “the best way to assure oneself that love is disinterested is to have love for the enemy-neighbor from whom you can expect no good in return, but only hostility and persecution.” He would use this concept in leading non-violent civil disobedience during the sit-ins and demonstrations in the early 1960’s. King believed that nonviolent resistance, when practiced effectively, disarmed one’s opponent by disturbing his conscience.

Although he preached a message of universal love, King was also a Christian realist in the mold of Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Protestant theologian and author of Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) and The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941). Niebuhr, who considered the Social Gospel movement na├»ve in believing that human beings would respond collectively to calls for justice and love, had a major impact on King’s struggles for justice in the Jim Crow south. Large social groups, according to Niebuhr, whether corporations, labor unions, or nations, were by nature selfish. Society responded only to power; piety, charity, education, and reform could never hope to eliminate injustice without involving itself directly in power conflicts. “Even in a just and free society, there must be forms of pressure short of violence, but more potent than the vote, to establish justice in collective relations.” King’s study of Niebuhr led him to a fuller understanding of human motives, group behavior, and the connection between power and morality. In the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King’s methods put pressure on the finances of the white business community, which eventually “coerced” a negotiated settlement that improved the lot of blacks in Montgomery.

King’s reflections on Niebuhr’s theology helped him view more clearly the decade long protest campaign inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, which led to India’s independence from British control. In Stride Toward Freedom (Beacon Press, 1958), King wrote that “Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. . . . It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking.” King came to view “the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence, [as] one of the most potent weapons available to an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

Like Niebuhr, King viewed the actions of Gandhi through the lens of power conflict and realism. While many religious idealists assumed that Gandhi’s methods were politically effective while avoiding the corruptions of the world, Niebuhr saw in Gandhi’s strikes, boycotts, marches, and demonstrations, a political strategy that was essentially coercive in forcing changes to the societal balance of power. In later years, King would describe Gandhian nonviolence as “merely a Niebuhrian stratagem of power.”

Another important aspect of King’s theology, and one often overlooked, is the concept of imago Dei, the belief that human beings are created in God’s image. For King, God’s creation of humanity was a powerful argument for the equality of all people. King believed that being made in God’s image meant that human beings had the right and the power to reshape society and to build a “beloved community” on earth. Rabbi Heschel reflected similar sentiments: “We are called upon to be an image of God. You see, God is absent, invisible, and the task of a human being is to represent the Divine, to be a reminder of the presence of God.”

Individually and collectively, these doctrines provided King with a theological rationale to address the needs of the community far outside the walls of his church, and were central to the dynamics of the modern civil rights movement. Although grounded in the concept of Christian love, King knew that love alone could not effect positive change. “Morals cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. The law cannot make an employer love me, but it can keep him from refusing to hire me because of the color of my skin.”

We have made substantial progress since King’s death in 1968. King’s legacy is reflected in part by our election of an African American president; by laws that prohibit racial and ethnic discrimination; by social mores that suppress outward expressions of racial hostility and prejudice; and by a growing black middle class, black mayors and congressional representatives, black police chiefs and astronauts, black military leaders and news anchors. Yet racial reconciliation in this country is far from complete. As King said, “Like life, racial understanding is not something that we find but something that we must create. And so the ability of [blacks] and whites to work together, to understand each other, will not be found ready-made; it must be created by the fact of contact.”

The struggles for justice, peace, and equal rights for all will remain with us for generations to come. The focus must necessarily shift at times to other parts of the world – the quest for peace in the Middle East; the cessation of hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan; the end of civil strife in Africa; the search for economic and political justice in Latin America and Asia. Had there ever been a Palestinian leader, for example, who applied the concept of Gandhian nonviolence to the Palestinians’ struggles with Israel, a two-state solution would have happened a long time ago. Yet rather than nonviolent resistance to West Bank settlements and the allocation of water resources, the Palestinians have mostly adopted the methods of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Yasir Arafat, shelling Israeli towns, organizing suicide bombings, and committing violence against innocent people. If they had asked King in 1968, he would have told them that such methods would render them just as powerless 40 years later.

For churches, synagogues, and mosques to remain relevant, they too must follow King’s lead and speak with a moral voice to the power dynamics of the world today, to government and industry, unions and military units, international governing bodies and news outlets. Only by applying the concept of universal love and understanding, combined with non-violent pressure, can justice truly be achieved among societies, nations, and institutions. “If there is to be peace on earth and goodwill toward men,” King said, “we must finally believe in the ultimate morality of the universe, and believe that all reality hinges on moral foundations.” While King’s message, teachings, and life remains ever so relevant today, will we as a people answer his call?


  1. In many ways this is a helpful presentation
    of some of the strengths and sources of MLK's
    vision and its challenge to us today.

    While I have only a few minutes, I do want to
    point out a couple misconceptions, that I'd like,
    briefly, and in all humility, to address.

    First, toward the end, it selectively quotes King &
    Niebuhr that until Gandhi, there was no practical
    and effective use of nonviolence in action in the
    public arena. King knew of and referred often to
    other examples. Since it is more important for us
    to be able to share examples than to argue about
    King, let me refer you to a concise list of over 130
    examples of nonviolent successes throughout
    history on the "Path of Hope" on LPF's web! site: as well as sites of the San
    Antonio Peace Center, Peace & Justice Resource
    Center, etc.

    A second half-truth is that the Palestinian movement
    has not had a nonviolent expression. It is true that
    the media has been negligent (and in some ways
    poorly equipped) in reporting nonviolent action but
    that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Again, let's keep
    the focus on our sharing information about the many
    str! ong deca de's long efforts using nonviolence on
    behalf of Palestinian rights.

    Many of you know Jean Martensen's activity with
    Tarek Abueta leading groups and doing nonviolence
    training. I'll put both their email addresses in the cc line.

    Of many other examples, let me share the attached
    newsletter I received a few weeks ago on an important
    nonviolent action-grounded Israeli movement.

    These are just two. There are many many more. An
    acquaintance recently wrote a book on nonviolence in
    this stru! ggle to add to at least a dozen other titles on
    my bookshelf on the subject.

    King has a great deal to teach us and offers great
    inspiration -- also on the site,
    there is a bulletin insert with a wide range of quotes
    from King reflecting some of the many ways he
    offers help for us in our time. I thank Ehlerson for
    lifting up a number of these and encourage us all
    to keep learning and growing and experimenting
    with nonviolence in every area of our lives. Gandhi
    thought the last of those three words important
    enough to have subtitled his Autobiography, "My
    Exper! iments w ith Truth."

    May we all be encouraged by King's example to
    accept the challenge of his life and that of so many
    other heroes of nonviolence to recommit ourselves
    to our own experimenting, encouraging, and sharing
    of the power of nonviolence.

    Blessings and Peace
    Glen Gersmehl,
    Lutheran Peace Fellowship
    national coordinator

    A couple more references, two pieces I've written, the
    first on the biblical roots and power of nonviolence,
    the article "Shalom," and the second, an exploration
    of the myths of nonviolence esp visible in the buildup
    to the Iraq War: "Alternatives to Military Action..." on
    the "Iinvisible option" of nonviolence. Both are on the
    LPF website,

  2. Glen,

    Thank you for the clarifications and thoughtful comments. I do not believe I said -- I certainly did not intend to suggest -- that there existed no other examples of nonviolent action prior to Gandhi. I was only pointing to Gandhi, combined with the Niebuhrian power/conflict dynamic, as a major (although certainly not the only) influence on King's intellectual thought and development. You make some very good points, however, and I commend your work with the Lutheran Peace Fellowship. I particularly liked your article, "Shalom! The Potential of a Deeper, Distinctly Christian Approach to Conflict and Violence," as well as the list of resources.

    As for the Palestinians, while I hope that you are right concerning individuals who are taking a nonviolent approach to addressing the conflict with Israel, it is clearly not the predominant approach, and never has been, among the Palestinians. Perhaps there is a lack of coverage of this aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but the approach taken since 1948 by most Palestinians and the surrounding Arab nations has been deplorable and, obviously, highly ineffective. And for every olive branch offered by the Israelis (see, e.g., Oslo accords and 2000 Camp David Summit), there is seeminly a missile fired in return by one or more of Palestinian factions (e.g., Hamas from the south, Hezbollah from the north). I just hope and pray that a Gandhi or a King will take root in the Palestinian territories to show the way toward a peaceful solution.

    I will be sure to add Lutheran Peace Fellowship's website to my list of links on this blogsite.