Revisiting the Life of Martin Luther King Jr.: Perspectives for Today’s Challenges

The protests that took place last year sent a shockwave across the country. At universities such as Princeton, Yale, the University of Missouri, and Dartmouth, these protests have forced students to reanalyze racism in American society and the problems that continue to stem from it.

On a more intimate note, the protest at Baker-Berry Library last fall left campus divided on the merits of the protest that took place, the actions of the school administration afterward, and most importantly, how the campus community moves forward. Despite all of the conversations about racism and equality on our campus and in the country, many have lost faith in our ability to come to a consensus about what should be done.

Yet in spite of the tumult of the last year, it is encouraging to recognize the fact that our country has been through much more chaotic times. Protests during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s were much more violent and divided the American public even more so than today. Indeed, the violence that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement illustrated how deep of an issue racism was (and continues to be) in the United States, and how it became an issue that pointed to a need for change that went beyond government legislation. What was needed instead was a radically new system of interaction between blacks and whites. But where was this new system, and how did it inspire social change? At the time, there seemed to be no hope that such a change could come.

Fortunately, a message of hope emerged from the chaos and despair. It is a message that not only calls people to love one another, but also calls them to change the mindset that determines how we as humans interact with one another in society. Specifically, it was a message that encouraged people to recognize that the Christian worldview could provide a moral framework capable of fostering radical changes in how people view one another. That message was most vividly portrayed by the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who used his Christian ministry and beliefs to speak to an American society that was in desperate need for social change. This article will describe how his Christian beliefs and ministry brought about that radical social change, and also show that his message to the world is just as applicable today as it was sixty years ago.

Everybody knows who Martin Luther King Jr. is and how important he was to the cause of the Civil Rights Movement. The details surrounding the integration of Christianity into his life and work, however, are not often mentioned in contemporary dialogue – yet this information helps elucidate the very framework that explains why he had such an impact on American society, and it bears fair treatment in a discussion on his effectiveness as an advocate for social justice.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929 to a line of black Southern Baptist ministers (his father, grandfather, and great grandfather were all Baptist ministers) in Atlanta, Georgia.[i] After his grandfather died, Martin’s father took over pastoring the local church, Ebenezer Baptist Church. As King grew up in the church, he became more exposed to the black church tradition of the social gospel – the idea that the church should not just be concerned with the spiritual issues of its day, but also the social ones that intimately impact the daily lives of those in the church and society as a whole. Growing up, King’s father emphasized this need in his own ministry, and King would come to continue the legacy of his father’s preaching in the years to come.

As an undergrad at Morehouse College, Martin developed a strong relationship with the president of the college, Benjamin E. Mays. King would often follow Mays back to his office to discuss theology and current events. Mays was also a much welcomed guest at King’s house for Sunday dinner. Mays would eventually encourage Martin to view Christianity as a potential force for progressive change.[ii] This deep inspiration eventually led King to be ordained as a pastor in his final semester at Morehouse College.

After college, King attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania to further his understanding of Christian thought and biblical teaching. While there, he was heavily influenced by Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis. In it, Rauschenbusch argues that social problems are moral problems on a larger scale. The Christian faith does not only provide a moral framework for the world, but also resources for understanding and addressing the root causes of moral issues. Therefore, the church must be concerned with the social problems that ail its members and society as a whole. This was quite significant for King, as he finally had a strong theological connection between the Christian faith and social justice.

King finished his biblical studies with a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University. While there, he adopted a school of thought called personalism, which believed that personal religious experiences were necessary to properly understand God.[iii] While this would serve him well in his preaching, it also nurtured his personal faith as he faced numerous difficulties during the Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights Movement before Dr. King’s involvement was a long series of efforts by black people in the South to resist the effects of Jim Crow after Reconstruction. As he began his work as a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King became increasingly involved in the movement’s progress throughout the South. As opposition to his work became more violent, King became convicted of God’s existence as “a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life.”[iv] His strong belief in a personal and loving creator God – one who cares about the well-being of persons in the world and who is always present and working on their behalf – allowed King to further develop his faith.[v] It was this aspect of his Christian faith that grounded him spiritually, mentally, and emotionally throughout his ministerial and civil rights work. His deep and personal relationship with God allowed him to face the difficulties in his work with boldness and confidence, enriching his ability to speak to a racially charged American public.

What made Dr. King’s movement so powerful was that he centered it on this crucial notion of the Social gospel, a gospel that is concerned with the whole man – not only his soul but also his body, not only his spiritual well-being but also his material well-being.[vi] In other words, Dr. King believed that the Christian gospel affects all aspects of a person’s life, and its influence on someone should be evident in both spiritual and social spheres. The core of the gospel is the good news of Jesus dying on the cross for mankind’s sins, rising from the dead, and promising that “whoever believes in him should not perish but inherit eternal life.”[vii] The apostle Paul illustrates the meaning of this in 2 Corinthians: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself . . . in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.”[viii] This is a key tenet of the Christian gospel; not only does Christ redeem and restore individual human beings, but he’s actually restoring the entire world to what it should be. This restoration is necessary because sin has corrupted the world we inhabit beyond our ability to fix, which is why the injustices that permeate our world seem so unsolvable despite our strongest attempts to do so. The ultimate problem is within the human heart, a broken system from which gross violations of the created order like racism and injustice spring.

Rather than wipe the slate clean and start over, however, God decided to redeem the world through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and he did so out of his love for us. To bring this into more personal terms, when one accepts Christ as Lord and Savior, man’s redemption is secured, producing a new heart and an ability to imitate Christ. Through this renewal and relationship with Christ, one becomes capable of expressing to others the selfless love that Christ showed mankind through the cross. As a result, the hope of the gospel is that God has provided a means for humans to be redeemed back to himself and escape the chains of sin, including the otherwise intractable moral flaws that cause individuals to demonize and behave destructively toward each other. Such attitudes have no place in the kingdom that God is working to restore – a kingdom that, as signaled by the triumph Christ displays through the resurrection, is destined to soon arrive in full.

King juxtaposed this hope of the gospel with the despair of the world. He recognized that the question of racism and civil rights was tearing America apart, and he knew that only love as illustrated by the gospel could provide a viable solution. What was ultimately needed was not just an external code of conduct that people were obligated to follow, but a change inside the human heart that would render it capable of demonstrating a new kind of love.

The love displayed by Christ in the gospel narrative is not just any type of love. It is agape love. Dr. King defined agape love as purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative.[ix] When someone loves with agape love, nothing is expected in return. It is selfless and profound. Dr. King claimed that when men rise to love on the agape level, they love others not because they like them or that their attitudes and ways are subjectively appealing, but because God loves them. King writes in a sermon that when one loves with agape love, one rises to a position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the evil deed that the person does.[x] As an example, during the Birmingham protests in the spring of 1963, student protesters were blasted with firehoses set to a pressure that would strip bark off trees and separate mortar from brick.[xi] Despite the brutality, the students did not fight back at the police. They even laughed as they were rounded up and arrested.[xii] When the Birmingham fire department was later asked to use the hoses against the protesters again, they refused.[xiii] Why? They were changed by the fact that even though they were inflicting harm on the protesters, the protesters refused to return the favor. The protesters fought the violence and hate with unconditional love. This is a clear example of how Dr. King’s influence within the Civil Rights Movement was so transformative. He and his followers chose nonviolence. They chose to love on the agape level.

That is why Dr. King implored his followers to not assault the homes of white people after his own home was bombed in 1956. He understood that violence does not solve social problems; it merely creates new and more complicated ones. He also argued that while violence may bring temporary victory, it never brings permanent peace.[xiv] Retaliating with violence after his house was bombed would surely have started a neighborhood war between blacks and whites, leading to more destruction and potential lives lost. It would also have distracted people away from the larger issue at hand, as people would be more concerned with fighting others rather than fighting racism.

The lessons espoused by Dr. King and his followers are still alive today. Last year, nine people lost their lives in a shooting at a black church in Charleston. Dylann Roof, a white man, committed the crime. In light of the anger and grief, the families of the victims publicly forgave Roof for what he had done. Those families could have called for him to suffer in misery for what he had done, but rather than pour hate on his soul, they poured out love. While their response does not erase the severity of his crime, nor does it erase the need for a prompt and just response from the law, it offers a way – a deeply challenging way – to think about the questions and tensions raised by the recent protests that have so shaken American society. It also should cause us to interrogate the status quo that we live in today. These protests have shed light on the fact that despite the abounding victories of the Civil Rights Movement, much work remains to be done. Yet King’s example illustrates that it is critical to carefully consider how this work will be done.

While incarcerated during the Birmingham campaign in April 1963, Dr. King wrote that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.[xv] Certain tools for social justice are easy to employ, but may only cause further division in the long term; it is much harder, but ultimately more fruitful, to challenge hateful oppression from a stance animated by agape love.

College campuses in America have become increasingly concerned with the creation of an ideal community: a community that is free of hate, racism, and animosity, and instead filled with love, acceptance, and vibrant diversity. King knew that as long as people were sinful, a community like this could never exist, hence the need for him to embody the gospel as he ascended to leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. King also knew that the only way such a community can become reality is for there to be a radical change in the way people view and interact with one another, a change that only the Christian gospel can bring about. King summarizes it beautifully:

Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistent on community even when one seeks to break it. Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community . . . It is a willingness to forgive . . . 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 the forces that seek to block community.[xvi]

Dr. King’s application of this message to the Civil Rights Movement is a testament to the fact that many of the ills that plague our world cannot be changed by legislation, military action, formal debate, or a change in government, but only through the love displayed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Dr. King dared to show the world how the gospel could speak into social conflict with love, and the consequences changed the trajectory of American society. Agape was so powerful against racism because at the end of the day, racism denigrates a person’s value and dignity solely because of their ethnicity or color of their skin. Racism and the segregation that sprouted from it are sin; they rebel against the fact that we as humans have an inherent value that has been given to us by God. Agape is a love that recognizes that value and profoundly magnifies it for everyone to see.

Today, we are seeing the expression of many of the same desires that undergirded the Civil Rights Movement – desires for true changes in how people relate to one another, for there to be forgiveness of past and current wrongdoings, and a yearning for hope and peace shared among people from all backgrounds. The gospel offered Dr. King a vision of reality that drove him to guide an entire generation toward the fulfillment of these desires, and as we look to his legacy for wisdom and inspiration in navigating our present challenges, it is imperative that we remember what enabled him to effect lasting change.

 

i. “Martin Luther King Jr.,” Martin Luther King Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle, King
Institute, accessed 14 February 2016, <http:// kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/ encyclopedia/enc_martin_luther_king_jr_biography/ index.html>.
ii. “Martin Luther King Jr.”
iii. “Boston University,” Martin Luther King Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle, King Institute, accessed 14 February 2016, <http://kingencyclopedia. stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_ boston_university/index.html>.
iv. Paul W. Pruyser, Changing Views of the Human Condition (Macon, GA: Mercer, 1987), 157.
v. Rufus Burrow, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Theology of Resistance (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2015), 18.
vi. “Social Gospel,” Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle, King Institute, accessed 27 December 2015, <http://kingencyclopedia.stanford. edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_social_gospel/ index.html>.
vii. John 3:16 (ESV).
viii. 2 Corinthians 5:17-19 (ESV).
ix. “Agape,” Martin Luther King Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle, King Institute, accessed 27 December 2015, <http://kingencyclopedia.stanford. edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_agape/index. html>.
x. “Agape.”
xi. Diane McWorther, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (New York: Simon, 2001), 370-371.
xii. Foster Hailey, “Dogs and Hoses Repulse Negroes at Birmingham,” New York Times, 4 May 1963, <https://partners.nytimes.com/library/national/ race/050463race-ra.html>.
xiii. McWorther, 387.
xiv. Martin Luther King, “The Christian Way of Life in Human Relations, Address Delivered at the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches,” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, 4 December 1957, <https:// kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/ christian-way-life-human-relations-address-delivered-general-assembly-national>.
xv. Martin Luther King, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Atlantic Monthly 212, no. 2 (1963): 78-88.
xvi. Jill Karson, Opposing Viewpoints in World History: The Civil Rights Movement (Farmington Hils: Greenhaven Press, 2004), 138.

 

Andrew Shuffer ’18 is from Cleveland, Ohio. He is an Electrical Engineering major.

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