Why We Still Need the Theology of Martin Luther King Jr. Today
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. contained within himself many identities. King was a scholar, prophet, civil rights leader, advocate for peace,1 and—above all—a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, King was also a plagiarist and philanderer, who was often depressed by his own personal failings and the failings of the movement for which he became a symbol.2 When we recall King’s life and work we must—in true Kingian fashion—hold both his positive and negative identities together in a dialectical tension. A focus on the former produces a pristine, stained-glass image of a man who can be revered but not imitated; a focus on the latter tempts us to dismiss the greatest public theologian America has ever seen. Like Moses, King broke the chains of Egypt off his people, only to disobey God’s commands in the wilderness. Like David, King was a man after God’s own heart, who could not contain his carnal lusts. Like Jeremiah, King prophesied to the people, but often despaired and was driven on only by the fire shut up in his bones. Held together, these identities produce an image of a man who was deeply committed to doing God’s will and deeply human in his doubts and failures.
We must recall this human King because his prophetic life and practical theology are desperately needed in America today. For we must admit that the dream to which he gave his life has yet to be realized in our world or nation, and that in some ways we are in more dire straits now than when King’s life was so cruelly ended fifty years ago.3 In this brief reflection on the importance of King’s legacy, I wish to focus on two related aspects of King’s public theology: his lived adherence to dialectical, creative resistance and his commitment to what he called a “strong, demanding love.”4 These contributions by King remain relevant in current struggles against injustice and oppression.
As I suggest above, I believe that King is worthy of our imitation. However, in claiming this I am not suggesting that we attempt to re-live the 1950s and 60s; to do so would be neither possible nor profitable. Indeed, if 21st century freedom fighters merely reproduced King’s tactics, they would be unfaithful to King’s legacy. Rather, King is worthy of imitation because his resistance to the “cosmic powers of this present darkness”5—namely white supremacy and all dehumanizing systems—was rooted in creativity and a continuous search for a higher synthesis.6 In response to changes in America and the needs of the movement, King innovated his protest tactics—for example, once King began to lead protests in northern cities like Chicago, he recognized that his strategy for achieving his goals must be fundamentally changed.7
King continually adapted his protest methods because his goal was to disrupt the status quo, and defenders of the status quo continually find new ways to absorb and deflect calls for transformation. King called for a “radical revolution of values”8 and a “restructuring [of] the whole of American society.”9 This radical revolution and complete restructuring were required because the status quo was (and is) neither normal nor natural. This remains true in the age of Trump—where nativist, racist, jingoist views are increasingly mainstream—but it was also true under Obama, who orchestrated mass deportations and countless drone strikes. King, who had “been to the mountaintop” and “seen the promised land,”10 was intoxicated with what he saw and could no longer tolerate the present social order. We, like King, must develop a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo and a vision of what a new world—the Beloved Community—can look like. Once we have developed this vision we can work to make it a reality. Fundamentally, King’s strategy for dismembering society and literally re-membering—incarnating—a new reality was love.
The love that King advocated is diametrically opposed to sentimentality. Indeed, King often insisted that he was not speaking about “emotional bosh”11 when he advised those fighting for justice that they must love to usher in the Beloved Community. He was clear to distinguish “love” from “like,” and recognized that “it’s nonsense to urge people, oppressed people, to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense.”12 The purpose of love was not to engender feelings of tenderness or warmth for oppressors; instead, King was concerned that those fighting for freedom and justice be committed to a love—and a God of love—that is intent on restoring all of creation to its proper, harmonious state.
Having examined King’s distinction between love and tender feelings, we can engage with King’s definition of love. In his final address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King argued that love and power must go together to fulfill one another:
What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best … is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.13
Thus, in King’s understanding of love, love requires the use of power to remove all those obstacles standing in the way of the realization of the purposes of love (i.e. the realization of the Beloved Community). Acquiring and utilizing true power is necessary in the fight for justice, because true power originates from God. God’s loving power is totally opposed to hatred and the depersonalizing forces of evil now present in the world; it calls us to, as Vincent Harding puts it, “live—unsafely, in love with God and neighbor, with cleansing purifying fire”14—a fire that transforms or destroys everything standing in the way of the Beloved Community. “Let us therefore not think of our movement as one that seeks to integrate the Negro into all the existing values of American society,” King stated, “but as one that would alter those basic values.”15
This recognition that King’s protest tactics and commitment to love are fundamentally disruptive of the status quo underscores the continuing relevance of Kingian spirituality. It makes clear that modern activists—such as Black Lives Matter organizers and protestors—are in line with the disruptive, constructive legacy of King and the larger civil rights movement. Acknowledging the continuity between 20th and 21st century civil rights struggles is important not because the civil rights movement of that era represented the only way to legitimately protest or because all protestors must be in line with Martin Luther King; rather, it is important because movements for freedom and justice gain strength and power by drawing on the wisdom of those who went before them. King never could have made the contributions he did without knowledge of the Black social gospel movement, imparted to him—directly and indirectly—by Daddy King, Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, Howard Thurman, and many others.16 Thus, recognizing the radical and revolutionary nature of King’s theology gives power to those who today are attempting to dismantle systems of oppression.17
Recognizing that King’s life was dedicated to creative resistance and transformative, disruptive love will allow us to move past absurd disrememberings18—for example, the notion that King would oppose Black Lives Matter protests19—of King and put King’s theological legacy to work in confronting the pressing problems accosting our nation today. In short, King’s legacy points to the fact that America must die to its present way of life—drowned in the baptismal waters of love, justice, and righteousness—and be resurrected anew. In the words of King, “America, you must be born again!”20
(1) Peace, in King’s theology, cannot be understood as the absence of conflict. King refers to this as “negative peace” and does not consider it legitimate peace. Instead, King argues for a positive peace “in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality” (Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King Institute, accessed April 17, 2018, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/letter-birmingham-jail).
(2) Though King has become representative of the civil rights movement, I acknowledge that this is an oversimplification. King was dependent on Septima Clark, A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Ella Baker, Coretta Scott King, and many others, as well as the Black Church and Black social gospel traditions. Thus, to speak of King is to implicitly speak of the community that shaped him and sustained him as he struggled for the actualization of the Beloved Community.
(3) King, for example, did not live to witness mass incarceration, the heightened global nuclear threat, the current global refugee crisis, the rise of Trump and resurgence of global racist populism, etc., and many of the evils confronted by King (e.g. racial segregation and widespread poverty) continue to plague our nation.
(4) Martin Luther King, Jr., “’Where Do We Go From Here?,’ Address Delivered at the Eleventh Annual SCLC Convention,” King Institute, accessed April 17, 2018, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/where-do-we-go-here-address-delivered-eleventh-annual-sclc-convention.
(5) Ephesians 6:12, NRSV, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=ephesians+6%3A12&version=NRSV
(6) Throughout King’s life he was committed to “a repeated, practical application of the Hegelian method of thesis-antithesis-synthesis that King had been fascinated with and attached to ever since graduate school.” David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, 1986), 464. Also see Paul C. Taylor, “Moral Perfectionism,” in To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Tommie Shelby and Brandon Terry (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018), 41.
(7) “Nonviolence must be adapted to urban conditions and urban moods. Nonviolent protest must now mature to a new level… mass civil disobedience…There must be more than a statement to the larger society, there must be a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point.” Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 581. See also Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2000), 36-38.
(8) Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam,” King Institute, accessed April 18, 2018, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/beyond-vietnam.
(9) King, “Where Do We Go From Here?”
(10) Martin Luther King Jr., “’I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,’ Address Delivered at Bishop Charles Mason Temple,” King Institute, accessed April 18, 2018, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/ive-been-mountaintop-address-delivered-bishop-charles-mason-temple.
(12) Martin Luther King, Jr., “Now is the Time to Make Real the Promises of Democracy: Detroit March for Civil Rights, Detroit, Michigan, June 23, 1963,” in All Labor Has Dignity, 81.
(13) King, “Where Do We Go From Here?”
(14) Vincent Harding, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008), 21.
(15) Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 582.
(16) See Breaking White Supremacy by Gary Dorrien (Yale University Press, 2018).
(17) See A More Beautiful and Terrible History by Janeane Theoharis (Beacon Press, 2018) for a more developed account of this argument.
(18) The term “disremembering” is used by Eddie Glaude to describe how America willfully ignores and distorts its racial history. (Eddie Glaude, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2016), 46-49.)
(19) “Mike Huckabee believes Martin Luther King, Jr. would be ‘appalled’ by the Black Lives Matter movement.” Briana Ehley, “Huckabee: MLK would be ‘appalled’ by Black Lives Matter movement.” Politico, August 19, 2015, https://www.politico.com/story/2015/08/mike-huckabee-black-lives-matter-martin-luther-king-121524.
(20) King, “Where Do We Go From Here?”