The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “was no armchair theologian.”
“He was a theologian of action, an engaged theologian, actively seeking to transform the structures of oppression,” James H. Cone, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, wrote in 1986. “His thinking emerged from his efforts to establish a just society.”
Montgomery. Albany. Birmingham. Selma. Washington, D.C. — Cone calls out the sites of King’s great confrontations with racism like a recitation of the Stations of the Cross.
And, finally, there was Memphis, where King was assassinated 50 years ago this week (April 4).
“In each of these crises, King refined his theology according to the needs of the people with whom and for whom he was struggling,” Cone continued. “His theology was not permanent or static but was dynamic, constantly emerging from the historical circumstances in which he was engaged.”
King’s theology didn’t develop overnight or come from whole cloth through another source. It developed over years and from sources as diverse as Transcendentalism, Gandhi, the black church, and a string of theologians, both his forerunners and his contemporaries.
King’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all Baptist preachers who taught the orthodox view of Christian doctrines including the divinity of Jesus. To them, he was both man and God, born a human but with a divine nature.
But by his second year at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, King argued that modern minds could not accept this and a new interpretation was needed.
“The orthodox attempt to explain the divinity of Jesus in terms of an inherent metaphysical substance within him seems to me quite inadequate,” he wrote in a 1949 theology class paper that argued the traditional view was “quite readily denied.”
Instead, Jesus achieved divinity through living by the realization that he was absolutely dependent on God. This was “prophetic and promissory for every other true son of man who is willing to submit his will to the will and spirit of God.”
Even at this stage in his life, King’s belief in putting faith into action was starting to form.
The student King also questioned several other orthodox Christian doctrines that he said were “unscientific, impossible, and even bizarre” if taken strictly literally but loaded with spiritual meaning if understood in a modern way.
The second coming of Jesus is not an event, he argued, but the experience of realizing his presence in our lives. The Day of Judgment can be any day that a Christian makes a moral decision in the light of Jesus’ teaching.
Perhaps most importantly, he saw the kingdom of God through the lens of the Social Gospel. In his last year at Crozer, he gave a glimpse of the ideas that would drive his later ministry and activism:
“When we see social relationships controlled everywhere by the principles which Jesus illustrated in his life — trust, love, mercy, and altruism — then we shall know that the kingdom of God is here.”
Civil disobedience and nonviolence
While King studied Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau in seminary, it wasn’t until he had a church pulpit that he put their philosophies into play.
During the Montgomery bus boycott, which started a year after King came to the Alabama city’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954, King referred to Gandhi frequently, calling him “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.” Gandhi’s assassination in 1948 was not yet a distant piece of history.
After the boycott, King traveled to India in 1959 and met with members of the Gandhi family and activists influenced by him.
“Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity,” King said in a radio address in India.
“In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation.’’
Thoreau was one of the fathers of American Transcendentalism, which taught all human beings are united by a common “Oversoul.” He advocated civil disobedience, the idea that unjust laws should be peacefully but pointedly disobeyed.
He famously went to jail in 1846 for refusing to pay his taxes, which he believed were used to support slavery. When his mentor and fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson asked what he was doing in jail, Thoreau replied, “What are you doing out of jail?”
That story — apocryphal though it may be — could be a one-line summary of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a rebuke to white Protestant clergy who were critical of King’s leadership of boycotts, peace walks, and student demonstrations in Birmingham in 1963.
“[T]here are two types of laws: just and unjust,” King wrote on the margins of a newspaper, the only paper available to him in jail. “I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Later in the letter, he delivers the coup de grace:
“I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause. … Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.”
King was also familiar with the works of Social Gospel pioneer Walter Rauschenbush and public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
Rauschenbush, an early 20th-century Baptist, believed Christians should concern themselves less with personal salvation and more with building a just world — the kingdom of God on earth. His thinking echoes through King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, given on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1963:
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low,” King said. “The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Niebuhr, a mid-century proponent of what was known as Christian realism, called for individual morality in an immoral world, something King also cited in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” King introduced himself in a letter to Niebuhr in 1953 while he was a doctoral student at Boston University.
By the time of the Selma march in 1965, Niebuhr called King “one of the greatest religious leaders of our time” and lamented his inability to march with him because of a stroke.
Other Judeo-Christian theologians who influenced King include Catholic theologians Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich, and Puritan preacher John Bunyan — all called out by King in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
King was also steeped in what Cone calls “the black integrationist tradition” — the drive of leaders like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois for the integration of black Americans that was later taken up by the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
And he was the son of a preacher man in the black Baptist tradition. The black church from which King emerged, Cone argued, is the glue that binds all the other influences on King’s theology together.
“King’s theology was defined by the themes of justice, love, and hope,” Cone wrote in 1986. “Justice, love, and hope are central themes in the history of the black religious tradition.”
King put it this way in 1965:
“I am many things to many people; Civil Rights leader, agitator, trouble-maker, and orator, but in the quiet resources of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher,” he said. “This is my being and my heritage. … The Church is my life and I have given my life to the Church.”