Recovering MLK, the Christian Prophet

MLK Memorial
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington – National Parks Service

Unsurprisingly, the blogosphere yesterday was replete with reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr. One particular genre of King tributes stood out: those that sought to recover what the authors claimed was a lost, neglected, or “whitewashed” facet of one of the few Americans to whom virtually all partisans appeal.

One sub-genre: Christian attempts to remind everyone that this was Rev. King, not just Dr. King. I made a small contribution here, re-running an April 2013 post on how The Atlantic had managed to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” while editing out much of its theology (and, in particular, its ecclesiology). The Jesuit magazine America had one of the best pieces of this nature: Christopher Hale’s “A Christian Prophet.” A sample:

Reverend King himself said, “In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher.”

Sadly, King and his vision have been largely secularized by modern culture. Reverend King, a Christian prophet, has morphed into Dr. King, a mere social reformer.

Hale, who worked in Catholic outreach for the 2012 Obama campaign, was critical here not only of the media, but of American politicians who — unlike MLK — “increasingly use God to further personal ambitions,” paying “lip service to God” without engaging in “prayer, study, and reflection.” By contrast, King’s God “was not a resource to get elected to office. For him God was not a means to any political end, but the source and summit of all his political activity.” When King said that he had a dream, it “was not his alone, but was and still is the dream of God for humanity.”

Incidentally, while Hale bemoaned how “today’s culture… leaves little room for authentic religion,” religion professor Debra Dean Murphy suggested that what made King such a successful orator was not his authenticity at all. Quite the contrary: “…we’ve not really heeded the lesson [King] taught us: namely, that the moral power of a great sermon or speech is not derived from an ‘authentic self’ (for we have no access to such a thing), but from a role inhabited, a part well-played, a mask worn well, such that people are moved and a nation is changed.” (H/T CCblogs)

Then a second sub-genre of “lost King” pieces emphasized how this mere Baptist preacher was far more radical — at least near the end of his shortened career — than the anodyne version sometimes presented for public commemoration. For example, historian Ben Wright observed that

MLK at anti-war rally at University of Minnesota
King speaking against the Vietnam War a few weeks after his Riverside speech, at the University of Minnesota – Creative Commons (Minnesota Historical Society)

Martin Luther King has been whitewashed into a comfortable, uplifting, color-blind icon. The voice of this prophet has been muted by the distortions of historical memory.

If you are comfortable with American foreign policy, American inequality, or if you believe that merely adopting color-blind policies would solve American racial inequality, then you should be uncomfortable with Martin Luther King.

Ben [a former student of mine, I’m happy to add] wrote this at the Teaching United States History blog, and asked for suggestions on how “to make King uncomfortable for my students.” Social studies education professor Alan Singer had addressed the same problem earlier in the month for The Huffington Post. Like Ben, he pointed to MLK’s famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech, delivered at Riverside Church in New York exactly one year before his death; Singer added another 1967 address, “Where Do We Go From Here?“, focused on economic inequality.

But it was hard not to notice that examples of the latter sub-genre tended to underscore the problem highlighted by the former:

While Ben does mention King’s concern about America “approaching spiritual death,” neither his nor Singer’s post frames King’s concerns about war and poverty in explicitly Christian terms. Yet here’s how MLK explained his commitment to peace in that 1967 speech (sermon?) at Riverside:

This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of 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’m 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? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One? Can I threaten them with death of must I not share with them my life?

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, where King pastored from 1954-1960 – Wikimedia

And finally, as I try to explain for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.

Singer quoted approvingly King’s famous line from near the end of “Where Do We Go From Here?”, “Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He didn’t add the sentences that conclude the speech, in which the pastor-prophet quotes the Apostle Paul:

Let us go out realizing that the Bible is right: “Be not deceived. God is not mocked. (Oh yeah) Whatsoever a man soweth (Yes), that (Yes) shall he also reap.” This is our hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow, with a cosmic past tense, “We have overcome! (Yes) We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe (Yes) we would overcome.” [applause]


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