The Common Good

Martin Luther King Jr. Was a Social Justice Christian

Sojomail - August 26, 2010


"[Martin Luther King] said that any religion that is not concerned about the poor and disadvantaged, 'the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them[,] is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.' In his 'Dream' speech, my father paraphrased the prophet Amos, saying, 'We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.'"

- Martin Luther King III, president and chief executive of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (Source: The Washington Post)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

Martin Luther King Jr. Was a Social Justice Christian

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This coming Saturday, August 28 will mark the 47th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream Speech." Glenn Beck has chosen this day to deliver his own speech from the steps of the Lincoln memorial.

On that same morning I will be speaking at the dedication ceremony of a work of public art that commemorates the words and legacy of King. It is not a protest. Rather, it is an opportunity to reflect on what this great American had to say and is still saying to our country today. Whenever we take the time to collectively consider what that dream was, we all benefit.

My picture has graced the Glenn Beck blackboard a number of times over the past year. I am quite sure that if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would have been on Glenn Beck's blackboard long before I would have ever been considered. That is because Martin Luther King Jr. was clearly a Social Justice Christian -- the term and people that Beck constantly derides. If the Christians of King's era had listened to Glenn Beck, they would have been forced to walk out on MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech. If they were to heed his advice to turn in social justice pastors to the church authorities, they all would have had to turn in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On December 18, 1963, at Western Michigan University, King gave a speech whose topic was "social justice and the emerging new age." If Glenn Beck had been there, I don't doubt that he would have gotten up and walked out as he has told his viewers to do if they hear "social justice" from their pastors. It might be foolish, but I hope that as Glenn Beck prepares for his rally on Saturday, he takes the time to read this speech and think about what it says. In it King explained why for justice to be just it can not only be individual, but must also be social:

"All I'm saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we're caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality."

This is why in the Old Testament, God commands his people to be charitable but also to work for justice. The people of God are to give offerings of their own free will, but there are also laws that show the government has a legitimate role to play. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus changes people's hearts and lives, and that is something that government policy can never compete with. But, I also believe that personal charity does not do the work of justice. Here is how King put it in that same speech:

"Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you've got to change the heart and you can't change the heart through legislation. You can't legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there's half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government."

King recognized misunderstandings like this as obstacles to social justice. But, ultimately he was hopeful:

"I think with all of these challenges being met and with all of the work, and determination going on, we will be able to go this additional distance and achieve the ideal, the goal of the new age, the age of social justice."

Yes, King named social justice as the goal of the new age. This is why so many Christians were willing to turn themselves in to Glenn Beck as Social Justice Christians. It was not difficult for them to choose between King's interpretation of the gospel and Beck's interpretation that I know some in his own Mormon church are not comfortable with Did King believe that the role of government was only to eliminate discrimination? No. As he wrote in "Showdown for Nonviolence" in 1968, it played a role in ending poverty too:

"We will place the problems of the poor at the seat of government of the wealthiest nation in the history of mankind. If that power refuses to acknowledge its debt to the poor, it would have failed to live up to its promise to insure 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to its citizens.'" (From A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.)

Now, Beck and I do have one area of significant agreement. When he spoke about the civil rights movement in context of the debate around health care he said, "Who were the civil rights marchers? They were people with profound belief in God." This is true. Both Beck and I would probably agree that the most powerful social movements are rooted in deep faith. But he finished that thought saying, "They were trying to set things right. They weren't crying for social justice, they were crying out for equal justice." Beck's mistake is to somehow think that the two can be separated. Beck has lied again and again about me and so many others; it saddens me to hear him now try to rewrite the legacy of Martin Luther King. When you do the work of social justice there are always criticisms, detractors, and those who will slander and lie. But, in the words of Dr. King in 1961 to the AFL-CIO:

"Yes, before the victory is won, some will be misunderstood. Some will be called Reds and Communists merely because they believe in economic justice and the brotherhood of man. But we shall overcome."

Glenn Beck has continually called me, Sojourners, and many others "communists, socialists, and Marxists" because we call for "economic and social justice." If he were an honest man, he would have to include Dr. King as well. But King must have been thinking about the Glenn Becks of his time when he concluded his speech at Western Michigan University:

"In spite of the difficulties of this hour, I am convinced that we have the resources to make the American Dream a reality. I am convinced of this because I believe Carlyle is right: 'No lie can live forever.' I am convinced of this because I believe William Cullen Bryant is right: 'Truth pressed to earth will rise again.' I am convinced of this because I think James Russell Lowell is right: 'Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne; Yet that scaffold sways the future, And behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, Keeping watch above His own.' Somehow with this faith, we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new life into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation to a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. This will be a great day. This will be the day when all of God's children, black [people] and white [people], Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God, Almighty, we are free at last!'"

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