While the name of Martin Luther King is revered, for his work in the civil rights movement and his ability to articulate the faith and hopes of so many Americans, there is always a danger that what he sought to achieve and his actual beliefs will be ignored, replaced with an image that does not disturb our sensibilities. And MLK was someone who did that and more.
To recover the meaning of King today, some have sought to highlight his opposition to war and militarism. With the war on terror and continuous war, King has a word for us today. Some have highlighted the way King drew the connections of civil rights and economic justice, especially as we relate to the poorest in our society. A compact that we have not kept as a nation.
But I wanted to highlight King’s religious faith today. While people are aware that King was a Baptist minister, because the term Baptist is a stand in for fundamentalism in our culture, progressives are likely to ignore or side step his faith. But that would not give us an accurate picture what motivated his life and work.
King was a progressive Christian. He earned his PhD in Systematic Theology at Boston University where he studied Boston Personalism, which has a lot of overlap with process theology. The centrality and dignity of personhood became the cornerstone of his thought. I want to highlight some MLK quotes that give indications of his faith.
“The universe is on the side of justice. One knows that in the struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship. Some creative force that works for togetherness, a creative force in the universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.”
The description of God as a creative force that seeks to bring greater levels of relatedness can be taken from a number of liberal sources: process philosophy, personalism, and the Chicago school represented by Wieman (who King covered in his dissertation who he compared and contrasted with Paul Tillich)
“All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”
We are who we are because of our relations with others. Sociality precedes individuality. Racism is a a rejection of the very make up of the world and the forces that make us. MLK writes “He who works against community is working against the whole of creation.”
And this “If I meet hate with hate, I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community.” This makes for an interesting account of natural law, which King would utilize in his writings, especially has he related to the question of civil disobedience.
“This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. When I speak of love, I am not speaking of some sentimental response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life.” King’s writings supports a faith informed by pluralism.
“The cross is the eternal expression of the length to which God will go in order to restore broken community. The resurrection is a symbol of God’s triumph over all forces that seek to block community. The Holy Spirit is the continuing community creating reality..”A take on the trinity as a symbol, an ethical one at that, which refers to those realities that seek to build community (and therefore individuals).
“In the final analysis, agape means a recognition of the fact that all life is interrelated, all humanity is involved in a single process…” That captures something of King’s metaphysics, his ethical vision, and his religious call all in one short sentence. To lose that would be to lose something of vital importance to Martin Luther King and to lose a powerful resource for social change today.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma