A lot of people leave out the Christian part when it comes to Martin Luther King Jnr. They do this because they’re either uncomfortable with the truth, they simply don’t know, have a prejudice towards Christians, or don’t really want to know.
This was illustrated by the brilliant, Vince Conard in a recent comic strip he posted to Instagram.
What Conrad presents is a critique of the tone, aggression and disunity of our day. Any mention of Martin’s faith, is anathema on some circles within the West. The fact that in 1934, the year after Hitler had taken for himself total power, MLK’s parents named their son after a German theologian and reformer has a lot to do with their faith in Christ. They acted in faith, because of the liberating power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which was displayed in the actions of the early Martin Luther during the Reformation. This fact seems to grate against those in the West, who may seek to hijack MLK in the name of division, self-interest and fear.
Tearing MLK away from his theological foundation, tears King away from everything he stood for and against. MLK’s legacy is a Christian witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the overcoming of sin. All sin, not just the bits and pieces some people choose to focus on in order to lord it over others. This includes the sin of treating others, who are created in the image of God, differently because of the colour of their skin.
MLK’s legacy is a Christian witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the liberation of humanity from its primal atheism. This is a liberation from humanity’s rejection of grace, its self-displacement, subsequent displacement of others and self-destruction.
Karl Barth spoke consistently about his view that the “no” of God heard in Jesus Christ has nothing on the great “yes” of God, spoken at the same time. This humiliation of God is the exaltation of humanity. This is something God chose. In exercising His freedom, God hands us freedom. True freedom only finds its place within the God who is free. God remains the God who is sovereign and free; and must do so, in order for us to be truly set free. Anything outside the gift of freedom from the sovereign God who is free isn’t true freedom, it’s true bondage; for ‘if the Son sets free, you are free indeed.’ (John 8:36)
In more technical terms:
‘…it is necessarily the case that the [free] omnipotent operation of God merely leaves the activity of the creature free, but makes it free…the effect of operation of God is not bondage but freedom. We could almost put it in this way, that the bondage which results from the operation of the Word and Spirit is itself true freedom.’ (Barth CD.3.3:150)
Freedom consecrated by response, responsibility, partnership with God, prophesy, ministry, healing and teaching. Freedom made real by His choice and His suffering at the hands of whip, condemnation, betrayal, spear, and death on a Roman cross. Freedom vindicated by the empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus, who is not another myth fostered by human imagination, like that of the half-god/half-man Hercules, but is Himself very God and very man.
What grounded Martin Luther King from the start was his faith in Jesus Christ. It’s well documented that when things weighed MLK down, he would lean on the gifts of Mahalia Jackson, who would minister to him through word and song. It’s his defiant Christian faith that should inspire us and point us to the goal of liberation as he saw it, liberation from ALL sin, in the name, word and deeds of Jesus the Christ. Without God’s sovereignty, and His willingness to be for us, none of us are free.
“God is neither hard-hearted or soft minded. He is tough-minded enough to transcend the world; He is tender-hearted enough to live in it. He does not leave us to our agonies and struggles. He seeks for us in dark places and suffers with us, and for us in our tragic prodigality.” (A Tough Mind & a Tender Heart, Gift of Love, p.9)
Furthermore, the faith of Martin Luther King Jnr is not to be confused with optimism. It’s not the “faith” of optimists and psychologists. Those who would preach from the pages of positive psychology such as Jordan Peterson. The clever term they use in order to justify reducing the Christian faith to principles that can be lived out, without any need for a relationship with the One who is the author and foundation of this faith; the One who anchors humanity to the living hope that this defiant faith testifies.
Martin Luther King Jnr wasn’t a man without sin, but he was a man who knew that ALL sin is answered first and foremost by God, in and through Jesus Christ.
This segregating of King from his faith and theology may serve the secular political aims of modern liberals, and their quest for total power by any means necessary, but it ultimately enslaves King to the servitude [i]. It enslaves MLK to ideology-as-master and the reactionary political groups it controls. These include groups and agendas, he, in all likelihood would never have signed on to because they persist in denying their own sin, and yet, are loud and proud in their condemnation of the sin of others.
Despite his liberal theology [ii], to separate MLK from Jesus Christ, is to create an MLK who never existed [iii]. To segregate Martin Luther King Jnr from this defiant Christian faith, and the testimony of God, who speaks through it, is to fail to hear what MLK had to say. To segregate MLK from Jesus Christ, is to burn what he set in motion, on the cross of what he hoped to see achieved.
[i] Jean Bethke Elshtain: ‘Martin Luther King was no generic social reformer but an African-American Baptist Minister; Pope John Paul II’s pastoral identity deeply informed his extraordinary diplomatic missions.A range of developments, from civil rights struggles in the U.S to Solidarity in Poland and the end of the Soviet Empire, are incomprehensible if religion is left out of the picture’ (Just War Against Terror, 2008).
[ii] Martin Luther King’s Early theology on ‘The Humanity & Divinity of Jesus‘, where he dissociates himself with the orthodox view of Jesus Christ’s Divinity (Incarnation), e.g.: ‘The Word Became Flesh’.
[iii] MLK criticised liberal theology, but he was caught up and influenced by the theology of it, particularly the Social Gospel, which has an inherently Marxist leaning – e.g.: liberation theology as opposed to a theology of Christian liberation (solidarity & subsidiarity). I believe MLK was more in the latter category, than the former. He wasn’t a liberation theologian. For the sake of simplicity my comment, “despite his liberal theology”, is more a minor footnote acknowledgement of an area that influenced his theological journey.
Artist: Vince Conard, https://www.instagram.com/vince_conard/ (Used with permission)
King, Jnr. M.L. A Tough Mind & a Tender Heart, Gift of Love (p.9)
Torrance, T.F. 2009 Atonement: The Person & Work of Jesus Christ InterVarsity Press
©Rod Lampard, 2019