It has been over a decade now, but I still vividly remember the strong visceral reactions that mention of the name of Martin Luther King Jr. produced at a rural white Southern Baptist church.
In a Sunday morning sermon, I told a story about Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer of the 16th century. The ears of one congregant must have shut down before I finished the sentence that mentioned Luther’s name.
Right after the sermon, the man came up to me and said, “We don’t say that Martin guy’s name around these parts.” At first I thought he was joking, but then I realized that this man wasn’t a church historian like me, and the only Martin Luther he had heard of was one whose last name was King.
This initial experience was soon trumped by a more numbing one during my tenure as the church’s interim pastor. I had made the mistake of agreeing to attend Church Training before I knew that the members of the adult class went around the room and read–word for word–the lesson.
Unfortunately for the class, they felt bound to the convention’s lessons and found themselves reading about African-American Baptists during Black History month. They mumbled some complaints about the need for the lessons, but dutifully began reading.
Midway through the hour, one seasoned deacon had heard enough. He closed his book, and exploded into a tirade against the Civil Rights Movement and that “murderer,” Martin Luther King, Jr. “Welcome to the Deep South,” I thought.
Hopefully such reactions are increasingly rarer these days, though surely not extinct. For many people, King is rightly called the prophet of racial equality. Some commentators are also recognizing King’s indebtedness to the African-American religious tradition. Toward the end of his career, King himself insisted that he was first and foremost a Baptist preacher.
With the recent passing of the 40th anniversary of King’s landmark speech, “I Have a Dream,” King’s vision for a “beloved community” has received some needed renewed attention. What is often forgot (or ignored) is King’s spirituality that undergirded his call for the human family to recognize its interdependence.
Before the Montgomery bus boycott, the initial campaign of the Civil Rights Movement in 1955-56, King said that for him “the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category.”
The threats of physical violence at Montgomery, however, battered him with anxiety and fear. After receiving an ominous threat, King, with a sense of desperation cried out to God, “I am afraid…. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
According to King, he felt the “presence of the Divine as I have never before experienced him. It seems as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, God will be at your side forever.”
King recounted this prayer experience often during the Civil Rights Movement. Historians note that prayer, as much as strategy sessions, characterized a King-led campaign.
While recognizing the need for prayer, King criticized those Christians who practiced an otherworldly spirituality that hid behind prayer as an excuse not to fight for the civil rights of African-Americans. Many white Christians, King noted, were blinded by the “myth of time”: just be patient, wait and pray.
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King said that people who had not suffered the pain of segregation never thought that civil-rights activities (i.e., nonviolent protest) were “well-timed.” On the other hand, King said that people must “aid time” and use the gifts and intelligence God provided instead of expecting Him to be a divine genie. Humans, while sinners, were not helpless invalids lost in a “valley of total depravity.”
A proper spirituality meant that the inner piety of prayer was always accompanied by the outer piety of social action: “pray for racial justice but use minds to develop a program… pray for economic justice, but make social changes that make for a better distribution of wealth.” In other words, Christians must put feet on their prayers.
For King, the Civil Rights Movement was the social gospel, the embodiment of spirituality. To use the image of the famous spiritual writer, Brother Lawrence, King felt he was practicing the presence of God in the campaigns for racial justice.
Consequently, marches and boycotts took on a spiritual dimension. They were righteous demonstrations and acts of faith. King’s comrades were a veritable cloud of witnesses hoping to build an integrated beloved community of all God’s children.
Love, of course, was at the center of King’s spirituality. Love of God (inner piety) had to be accompanied by love of neighbor (and enemy). Because the end cannot justify the means, hatred and violence were not acceptable. Nonviolent love was the discipline of the spiritual life. Suffering love was redemptive. Hate segregation, but not the segregator, for he too was created by God.
King’s dream of a beloved community was never fulfilled, and before his tragic assassination he recognized the perpetual difficulties of overcoming the demon of racism. But King’s legacy includes a spirituality of hope that was committed to a disciplined strength to love nonviolently.
I can’t think of a better image of Jesus and his Cross: the nonviolent love of God.
Doug Weaver is assistant professor of religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.