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MLK Day January 16, 2012

Posted by roberttalley in Martin Luther King.
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Will publish the weekly sermon tomorrow. Here is something to read about MLK.

EVALUATION OF KING’S LIFE AND WORK

“King must be seen as a leader who solved a technical problem…by clothing a national resistance movement in the disarmingly appealing garb of love, forgiveness, and passive resistance” (1). This problem was the difficulty of how a powerless, ethnic minority could publicly accomplish change and receive concessions from the dominant majority without provoking a likely suicidal crackdown on the minority by the majority.

Although some gains had been made through the Supreme Court’s ruling on desegregation in the Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling and through congressional legislation in the 1950’s, legal action through the courts and Congress had slowed down (2). King argued for and led peaceful, mass action. This is not to say that he rejected governmental action. He worked at times effectively with the NAACP and was directly helped at crucial points in the civil rights struggle by their ability to work the legal system. However, his experience with the legal and governmental system of his day, led him eventually to a less optimistic expectation of both systems (3).

King’s prophetic view of the black church was a linchpin in his method of social activism. After his assassination, the American black church did not continue to follow his lead. Some retreated into the reactionary traditionalism that had characterized the black church before King came onto the scene. Others shifted by the 1990’s from protest into politics or (especially as mega-churches) into the prosperity gospel. The prophetic emphasis of King’s theology, however, was largely lost (4).

Black liberationists have, however, followed in King’s footsteps in expanding their horizons beyond black issues, especially as they have come into contact and understanding of other liberationist theologies (5). While it is by no means certain that this is the direction that King would have gone had he not died so young, the black liberationists as represented by James Cone have focused on liberation for the black race as opposed to King who had a dream of righteousness for all the races (6).

King’s principles of non-violence have been attributed to a Hegelian mix of the teachings of Jesus and Gandhi. While this is admittedly true, they are not equal partners in the mix. Black cultural Christianity is the foundational vehicle by which non-violence was brought into the battle for civil rights. It was his position as a Baptist pastor that gave him the opportunity to set that vehicle into motion.

As a liberal King cannot be considered faithful to any semblance of a literal interpretation of the Scriptures, however, the principles of the Scripture which he accepted were the principles by which he led the civil rights movement. While the Scriptures and other forces and influences were key to his theology, all of them were subordinate to the black church of his cultural experience. Rejecting what he saw as fundamentalism in the black church as well as (according to Cone) a partial rejection of the pessimism of Niebuhr’s neo-orthodoxy (7), King took what he understood to be the “…profound truths behind the legends and myths of the Bible” and apply them to the methods and goals of his movement (8).

King early integrated the methods of Mahatma Gandhi into his movement, but the foundation for his methods was the ecclesiological structure and culture of the American black Protestant church. “King turned the Negro’s rooted faith in the church to social and political account by melding the image of Gandhi and the image of the Negro preacher and by overlaying all with Negro songs and symbols that bypassed created centers and exploded in the will of the Negro psyche” (9).

1. Lerone Bennett, Jr., What Manner of Man, (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., 1964), 61.
2. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965), 926-927.
3. David J. Garrow “The Intellectual Development of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 40 no 4 (1986), 15.
4. Lewis V. Baldwin, “Revisioning the Church,” Theology Today 65 (2008), 32.
5. Stanley J. Grenz and Olson, Roger E., Twentieth Century Theology, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 203.
6. Grenz and Olson, Twentieth Century Theology, 206-208.
7. James H. Cone, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Black Theology-Black Church, http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/jan1984/v40-4-article3.htm (accessed 25 July 2011).
8. David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross, Perennial Classics edition. (New York: Perennial, 2004), 37.
Bennett, What Manner of Man, 72.