Martin Luther King, Jr. on Martin Luther

I’ll leave it to actual American historians like my Anxious Bench colleague Kristin Du Mez to explain the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. on this, the 50th anniversary of his assassination. But one topic about which I can perhaps say something meaningful is MLK’s response to the Reformation initiated by his namesake.

(As you may know, MLK was actually born Michael King, Jr.; inspired by a Reformation tour of Germany in 1934, his father changed their names, in what Ed Gilbreath says “can only be described as a gutsy statement about his perception of himself and his expectations for his young namesake.”)

MLK in 1963
Martin Luther King, Jr. at a march in Washington, DC, four months after writing his letter from Birmingham – U.S. National Archives

Coincidentally, today is the day in Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture course when we introduce students to Martin Luther and the causes of the Protestant Reformation. I’m not giving that lecture, but I did do some digging in the King Papers Project at Stanford to see if I might recommend something for our professors to use as a devotional this morning.

On the one hand, King celebrated Martin Luther. In a 1954 sermon he apparently used it alongside Abraham Lincoln’s ending of slavery as illustrations of the New Testament notion that Jesus came in the “fullness of time”: “…there are times when history is ready to accept a new event…. Time and history were ready for [Jesus’] coming.” And apparently, for Luther’s Reformation. And in MLK’s iconic Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the German reformer joins the prophet Amos, the Puritan author John Bunyan, Thomas Jefferson, and Jesus himself as examples of people tagged as “extremists” in their own time but since celebrated by the same Christian moderates who criticized King for his approach to activism.

But King also understood the Reformation to have helped create the conditions that kept the white church from responding to the evils of racism. In a 1959 sermon on Matthew 17:19 (in which Jesus’ disciples ask why they were unable to cast out a demon from an epileptic boy), King considers man’s “inability to conquer evil by his own power.” (An updated version of the sermon was later published in King’s 1963 collection, Strength to Love.) For example, while he celebrated Renaissance humanists’ “earnest attempt to free the mind of man,” he concluded that they were too optimistic, for “the Renaissance forgot about man’s capacity for sin.” But he was just as disturbed by the notion that “man must wait on God to do everything. Man must lie still, purely submissive, and God in his good time will redeem the world.” Though a common idea in Christian history, he found it particularly prominent in the Protestant Reformation:

This great spiritual movement which led to the birth and development of Protestantism was concerned about moral and spiritual freedom. It served as a necessary corrective for a medieval church that had become all too corrupt and stagnant. Its doctrines of justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers are towering principles which we as Protestants must forever affirm. But in its doctrine of human nature the Reformation overstressed the corruption of man. While the Renaissance went to far in optimism, the Reformation went too far in pessimism. The renaissance so concentrated on the goodness of man that it overlooked his capacity for evil. The Reformation so concentrated on the wickedness of man that it overlooked his capacity for goodness. While it was right in affirming the sinfulness of human nature and man’s incapacity to save himself, the Reformation wrongly went to the extreme of believing that the image of God had been completely erased from man.

For MLK, the result of this “lopsided” version of Protestant theology was “a purely other-worldly religion”: so convinced of the “utter hopelessness of the world” that “[i]t sees the Christian gospel as only concerned with the individual soul” and “overlooks the fact that the gospel deals with the whole man.”

The solution for King was to reject both extremes: we can cast out evil neither “by our own efforts” nor “by a purely external help from God.” Instead, we are saved by faith — that is, by

the willing acceptance of a free gift. It is accepting our acceptance. It is reaching out to take in. It is man’s whole nature wide open to God.

So it is by faith that we are saved. Man filled with God and God operating through man will bring unbelievable changes in our individual and social lives…. Racial justice is a real possibility in this nation and in the world. But it will not come by our frail and often misguided efforts alone; neither will it come by a mighty act of God in which he imposes his will on wayward men. It will come when enough people will open their lives to God, and allow him to pour his triumphant Divine energy into their souls. Our long and noble dream of a world of peace may yet become a reality. But it will come neither by man working alone or God breaking in to crash the wicked schemes of men. Peace will come when men so open their lives to God that he will fill them with love, mutual respect, and understanding goodwill. Yes, social salvation can only come through faith—man’s willing acceptance of God’s mighty gift.