Every adult American can hear in their minds the voice, rhetorical skills and moving words of the late Martin Luther King Jr.
He had the ability to move people with his spoken words in a manner possible of few people in history. He made the phrase, “I have a dream,” forever a part of the American experience.
Behind King’s powerful spoken words lay a theological and philosophical grounding that shaped him while growing up in the segregated South and pursuing advanced education in the North.
The particular talents and skills of King died with him in 1968, but today we can build on the same practical and theological foundations upon which he built his life.
King’s calling as a Baptist preacher is fundamental to understanding his life and the potential that a pastoral calling can possess for the broader society.
King followed in the Old Testament prophetic tradition. “God in times of human need sometimes ‘raises up’ a prophet, a judge, a deliverer, a priest or a shepherd. … So it was with the rise of Martin Luther King Jr.,” Roger L. Shinn said.
William D. Watley wrote, “At his core, King was neither philosopher nor academician nor organizational administrator. He was essentially a black preacher. To be more precise, he was essentially a black pastor.”
It is simply impossible to understand the life and work of King without comprehending the deep impact in his life left by the tradition of African-American preaching and his sense of calling to participate in that tradition.
Many people know of King as a champion of nonviolence.
Peter J. Paris noted, however, that this was not new to the African-American church. “King was merely explicating and implementing the traditional means of protest long practiced by the black churches under the black Christian tradition,” Paris said.
King’s first speech of the Montgomery bus boycott illustrates that the principle he espoused was not rooted in a secular or non-Christian philosophy.
He did not use the word “nonviolence” in the speech, but he eschewed violence from a Christian perspective.
“I want to say that we are not here advocating violence,” King said. “I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are Christian people. We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus.”
King stressed love from a New Testament perspective. “Along the way of life,” King wrote, “someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.”
He was not speaking of “some sentimental or affectionate emotion,” but rather as a connection that “means understanding, redemptive goodwill.”
African-American theologian J. Deotis Roberts called love the “key concept” in King’s worldview.
“King had a passionate commitment to the love ethic in his theology,” Roberts said.
King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, called her late husband an “apostle of love” and an “apostle of action.”
King understood the relationship between love and justice, emphasizing that “justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.”
In “Stride Toward Freedom,” King noted, “Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it. … Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community.”
“Beloved community is a key phrase associated with King. While 20th century philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce coined the phrase, King used it often.
“The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness,” King said. He contrasted beloved community with broken community.
“Something must happen so to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right.” In beloved community, there will be “genuine intergroup and interpersonal living,” King asserted.
King’s theology contained four key themes, according to Whatley:
1. The universe has a moral order.
King “believed in moral absolutes and rejected any system of theological relativities,” Watley said.
In his sermon, “A Knock at Midnight,” King stated, “It is also midnight within the moral order. At midnight colors lose their distinctiveness and become a sullen shade of grey. Moral principles have lost their distinctiveness. For modern man, absolute right and absolute wrong are a matter of what the majority is doing.”
2. God works in history.
King rooted his faith in history – both in seeing God at work in the past and expecting God to work in the present.
In writing about the bus boycott in Montgomery, King said, “There is a creative power that works to pull down mountains of evil and level hilltops of injustice. God still works through history His wonders to perform.”
3. Human life is essentially social.
In his sermon, “The Man Who Was a Fool,” King asserted, “In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
King developed a theology that recognized the essential social character of human life and also understood that human sinfulness made justice difficult in social settings.
4. Personality is a key to understanding God and humankind.
Personalism insists that “only personality – finite and infinite – is ultimately real,” King wrote. He “developed his own interpretation of personalism,” one that reflected the black church tradition, J. Deotis Roberts said.
The human personality is not above the divine personality. “The worth of the individual … is based upon one’s relatedness to God. God, through creating humans in the image of God’s self, has bestowed upon humans equal worth,” King wrote.
Paris viewed King as among those African-Americans whose “rhetoric has served to express the wrath of the race’s prophets.”
And they did so while being “deeply loyal to the biblical view of humanity which, they were convinced, had been affirmed by the nation’s Founding Fathers.”
Many people are aware of King’s nonviolent methodology. This is important, but it is a method of living out a Christian ethic that seeks to establish beloved community.
Charles Marsh sees the civil rights movement, as expressed through King’s involvement, as “part of God’s larger movement in the world.” It started with Abraham in the Old Testament and continued through the New Testament and church history.
The church today can find theological justification and direction for its actions against injustice by recalling the major themes of King’s theology.
Ferrell Foster is director of ethics and justice for the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission. This article was adapted from his doctoral project at Logsdon Theological Seminary, and a longer version first appeared on the Texas Baptist’s website. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ferrellfoster.