This weekend, in the midst of my fortnightly twin 12-hour shifts at R. R. Donnelley, one of my co-workers wondered why a "mere" civil rights leader like Dr. King should have a holiday dedicated to his memory. I say, with more than a little shame, that there was a time when I might have expressed a similar sentiment. You see, only a white person, raised in the mainstream of America society and, for those of us raised in the North, without first-hand experience of the explicit indignities black citizens had to endure in the Jim Crow South, could question the wisdom and appropriateness of setting aside a day to honor King's legacy.
King himself once said, according to Stanford Professor Clayborne Carson, "People think of me as a civil rights leader, but fundamentally, I'm a Baptist preacher." Here, of course, is where so many of my evangelical (really, fundamentalist) forebears objected to King, at least at the conscious level. The reason? King was no Baptist like any with whom they would worship. He was a Baptist of the Harry Emerson Fosdick sort, albeit one who preached with the familiar cadences of the Black church he had learned from his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. In a word, King was a theological liberal, trained at the liberal bastions of Crozer Seminary in Chester, Pa. and Boston University, where he earned his Ph.D. with a dissertation on the thought of Paul Tillich (as a theologian who, in years past, waded through Tillich's massive Systematic Theology, I can attest that such is not an easy task). He derided fundamentalism, both for its literalism and its myopic lack of commitment to the social implications of the Bible's message. Indeed, in many respects King's theology certainly differed from my own.
But, as I wrote last year, "We do ourselves a disservice if we fail to listen to him as Christians. For, you see, King's thought, nowhere more apparent than in this speech, resonates with the oft-neglected calls in the Old Testament prophets, not least Amos, for social justice." This area, more than any other, has been the failing of more than a few traditionalist, "conservative" theologians. J. Gresham Machen, the product of a wealthy Southern family, disapproved of black students residing in the Princeton Seminary dorms. Most shocking to me was the view of the great Highland Scot John Murray who, in his generally helpful Principles of Conduct, wrote that slavery was an ordinance established by God himself. Such attitudes are, frankly, sub-christian, no matter their pedigree in the thought of stalwarts of the Reformed faith. From my vantage point as a theologian of a later generation, such attitudes are unthinkable to any who take the Bible seriously as the Word of God and consider Christian mission to consist of working to implement the victory achieved by Christ in his death and resurrection.
Social justice was King's clarion call. Many "conservatives" deride such a term, considering it a code word for "liberalism." Theological conservatives often dismiss it via the neat sleight of hand of equating it with the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch—another Baptist!—and driving a wedge between it and the "soterian" gospel of Christ's death and resurrection. But to do so is faulty on many levels. Fundamentally, however, it fails to understand the full-orbed nature of the New Testament's gospel of the new creation, about which I have written extensively. And what was the fundamental mission of the great prophets, if not to call the unfaithful people of Israel and Judah back to the principles of love of God and love of neighbor—including the principles of what is now called "social justice"—that summarize the Law of Christ, which remains incumbent on his people in this, the age of the New Covenant? Just because Dr. King was an advocate of the "social gospel" does not mean that what he said about justice, derived explicitly from Holy Scripture, is not vitally relevant to our lives as Americans today.
Indeed, it is a matter of supreme irony that so many Christians who ardently desire to impose biblical standards of sexual morality on our society fail to see the urgency of applying the prophetic calls for justice. At one level this reflects a naive misunderstanding of what the biblical concept of "justice" entails. At another it reflects an unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of structural evil, not to mention the obstacles such evil places in the path of people caught in its vortex. People may, in Thomas Jefferson's words, have been "created equal" by God, but the realization of that equality in societal opportunities and experiences has always been imperfectly executed.
King is rightly known as a civil rights pioneer. But he was much more. He is best viewed, I believe, as a prophetic figure calling America to a better performance of its ostensible ideals. During the last years of his life, long after the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and the 1963 March on Washington, he turned his gaze toward America's participation in the Vietnam War, which he viewed with characteristic distaste as a proponent of nonviolence—indeed, nonviolence based on explicitly Christian principles, principles demanded as the entail of Christian discipleship. And it is a stance for which he was roundly criticised at the time—how, it was asked, could he claim to "love America" when he was so searing in his criticism of the war? King, rightly, replied that it was because he loved America that he criticized its participation in the war.
On 30 April 1967, less than a year before his assassination, King gave a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in which he decried "the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism" that he saw held his country in a stranglehold. In the thrilling peroration at the close, he references the programmatic call of the prophet Amos, "But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5:24). Before that, he uttered these remarkable words of protest, whose power I am appreciating more and more the older I get:
... We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers and profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our present policies. True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. It will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say, "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will say of war, "This is not just." This way of settling differences is not just. ... A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.These are powerful words, words that need to be heard again and again by a society, large segments of which continue to equate patriotism with jingoistic militarism and begrudge every cent spent on social programs but who, at the same time, refuse to see the unsustainability and misprioritization manifested in America's spending more money on defense than the next eight leading countries combined. Without a doubt, however, a modern-day Dr. King would face the same opposition the original faced 50 years ago. And that's a bloody shame.
I leave you with an audio version of the sermon from which I drew the excerpt cited above.