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.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?
--Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Stockholm, Sweden, December 11, 1964.
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.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:
--Martin Luther King Jr.
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 naïve 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?