Remembering MLK's Religious Dissent

Updated: Mar 22, 2019



You would think from things you hear that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a born-again evangelical preacher who used the Christian gospel as his primary motivation and inspiration behind the civil rights movement. If you explore MLK's life more deeply, you find this wasn't exactly true.

Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Boston University, searching for a multicultural community and a setting for his study of ethics and philosophy. He became “Dr. King” by earning a PhD in systematic theology. On the one hand, King was inspired by theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch, who taught Christianity "as a spirit of brotherhood made manifest in social ethics." King, and others in the movement, reframed that idea into the concept of a "beloved community," an inclusive vision of humankind striving together for peace and justice.

Defending the importance of science, King wrote, “Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism.” His appreciation of science, though hardly acknowledged by most, isn’t surprising. In arguing against notions of black racial inferiority, he frequently cited current anthropological research that revealed what he called “the falsity of such a notion.” On more than one occasion, he even lauded “the philological-historical criticism of biblical literature,” saying it “has been of immeasurable value and should be defended with religious and scientific passion.” We don’t often hear how King was positively influenced by such atheistic, existentialist philosophers as Friedrich Nietzsche and John Paul Sartre. Yet King said, while “finding things to question in each, I nevertheless learned a great deal from study of them.”

King was a man of great intellectual prowess and vast philosophical wisdom. In 1964, King became the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35. He also studied German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Of course MLK used the stories of the Bible to (pillar of fire, Exodus parting of the sea) as metaphors to inspire the civil rights movement. On the other hand Martin Luther King, Jr. was smart and a superb political strategist. He knew there was only one way of getting an audience in the south without being dismissed or targeted and that was to claim he were speaking in the name of the Christian "God."

King was hardly a proponent of contemporary dogma. He did not preach an evangelical gospel; he democratized a social gospel of liberation. Yes, King drew inspiration from Jesus as a prophet and revolutionary but thank goodness he did not take the Bible literally by claiming God was on his side, giving his tribe the divine right to eliminate anyone in their way. He was a staunch opponent of organized religion, and wrote:

"Softmindedness often invades religion. This is why religion has sometimes rejected new truth with a dogmatic passion. Through edits and bulls, inquisitions and excommunications, the church has attempted to prorogue truth and place an impenetrable stone wall in the path of the truth-seeker."

King roundly criticized many forms of organized religion, not only for its failure to support racial and economic equality (calling it Christianity’s “everlasting shame”), but also for its explicit support of war and violence. King wrote:

“In a world gone mad with arms buildups, chauvinistic passions, and imperialistic exploitation, the church has either endorsed these activities or remained appallingly silent. During the last two world wars, national churches even functioned as the ready lackeys of the state, sprinkling holy water upon the battleships and joining the mighty armies in singing, ‘Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.’ A weary world, pleading desperately for peace, has often found the church morally sanctioning war.”

King was a strong supporter of church/state separation. Regarding the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that school-sponsored prayer is unconstitutional, King said:

"I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally, or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision."

King didn’t limit his criticism to the church; he was also openly skeptical of the very foundations of Christian doctrine. Despite being the son of a Baptist minister, MLK challenged traditional views of Christianity and the literal interpretation of scripture. Perhaps most striking was his denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

In a paper he wrote in 1949, King examined the psychological and historical origins of three foundational concepts of Christianity: The divinity of Jesus, his virgin birth, and his resurrection. While his analysis is worth reading in full, I’ll give away the punchline by telling you that King begins by stating, “...these doctrines are historically and philosophically untenable.” He goes on to strip these stories of their literal meaning, and explore what it was about both the historical Jesus and the sociopolitical environment in which early Christianity was spreading that might have led to the propagation of such obvious inconsistencies and falsehoods as those found in the Bible. King saw Christ’s “divinity” to have arisen through his good works, not because of his particular relationship to a deity.

King went on to exhibit other forms of skepticism about mainstream Christian doctrine, and even warned that it may be harmful. In 1950, King wrote a paper titled “The Humanity and Divinity of Jesus,” where he states:

"The orthodox attempt to explain the divinity of Jesus in terms of an inherent metaphysical substance within him seems to me quite inadequate. To say that the Christ, whose example of living we are bid to follow, is divine in an ontological sense is actually harmful and detrimental. To invest this Christ with such supernatural qualities makes the rejoinder: “Oh, well, he had a better chance for that kind of life than we can possibly have ..." So that the orthodox view of the divinity of Christ is in my mind quite readily denied. The significance of the divinity of Christ lies in the fact that his achievement is prophetic and promissory for every other true son of man who is willing to submit his will to the will and spirit of God. Christ was to be only the prototype of one among many brothers.The appearance of such a person, more divine and more human than any other, and standing and standing in closest unity at once with God and man, is the most significant and hopeful event in human history. This divine quality or this unity with God was not something thrust upon Jesus from above, but it was a definite achievement through the process of moral struggle and self-abnegation."

One thing I deeply respect about Martin Luther King Jr. is how he sought to address the complex systemic factors that produced human inequality, injustice, oppression and suffering. King wrote, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

I don't see MLK as a religious man but a spiritual person. How can we speak of love and harmony, and turn a blind eye to the injustice and oppression of our world? Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "No one is free until we are all free." Authentic spirituality has a scrappy, gritty, vigorous dimension to it. Authentic spirituality is not passive or acquiescent, and is more than nice-sounding platitudes or long theological/philosophical diatribes. Authentic spirituality is an inside out reality. We do our own inner work, we access the higher angels of our nature, but we bring outward expression to it through the lives we live and the actions we take in the world. Living this way is actually a dangerous proposition.

I have the above picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. On the back of the picture I wrote the following words – “determined,” “passionate,” “non-conformist,” “revolutionary,” “rebel,” “undeterred,” “courageous,” “powerful,” “unconventional,” “rule-breaker,” “peaceful,” “fearless,” “angry,” “offensive,” “loving,” “compassionate,” and “selfless.” These are characteristics I see in Martin Luther King, Jr. that resonate with me.


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