Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Christianity

As they decry the imaginary “war on Christmas” you sometimes hear fundamentalist Christians claim a similarity between the imagined persecution they fear and the real persecution experienced by the civil rights movement. They try to claim that the great prophet of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., would be on their side.

Some of them think that, because we talk about MLK’s works and actions and speeches regarding our lives here on Earth, that we are forgetting how important Christianity was to him. They think the fact that he was a Baptist minister means he would agree with their beliefs. In fact, if you know anything about Martin Luther King, you know that he was undeniably a left-wing radical.

The sanitized Martin Luther King we will hear about next month is a pale reflection of the passionate radical who worked to change the system of oppression of blacks and poor people. This radicalism had traces back to another radical- Jesus of Nazareth.

The teachings of Jesus were the most important ideas in King’s life.  The second greatest influence on King was the Declaration of Independence and the ideas upon which the United States were founded.  King’s dream, from his famous speech, was the American dream.

Dr. King’s morality stemmed from Jesus’ teachings, not because he would miss out on everlasting life if he ignored them, but because the teachings of Jesus made sense morally and intellectually. Dr. King studied many great thinkers such as Kant, Aristotle, Hegel and many others. Rev. King was totally against communism and fascism but he was not afraid to read the writings of Marx or even Hitler, because he knew that, as Jesus said “There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those can defile a man.” Dr. King thought deeply about things and his ideas changed as his knowledge and understanding grew. This is because he knew “Seeds that fall on rocky ground” as Jesus said, “soon whither because their roots have no depth.”

King was a Social Democrat who said, “You have what you have because of others; let us be concerned about others because we are dependent on others.” King talked of a parable in which Jesus called a man a fool because the man “failed to realize that wealth is always the result of commonwealth. This man talked like he could build the barns by himself, like he could till the soil by himself. He also failed to realize his dependence on God. Do you know that man talked like he regulated the seasons? He was a fool because he ended up acting like he was the creator instead of just a creature.” The early Christians would be considered socialists. As Acts 2:45 tells us, they “sold their possessions and shared out the proceeds among them according to what each one needs”.

Dr. King’s greatest concern became economic justice for all people. He said that “any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that cripple the souls –the economic conditions that stagnate the soul and the city governments that may damn the soul –is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion in need of new blood.” Dr. King heeded Jesus when he said, “The kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” In other words, the kingdom of heaven is what we make of the here and now.

Dr. King called for economic and social justice for poor people of all races. “Sometimes a class system” he said, “can be as vicious and evil as a system based on racial injustice.” He also said, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” Rev. King knew that poor people could never truly participate in the American dream. As he said, “If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.” King called upon Congress to enact legislation guaranteeing all Americans a living wage. He condemned the behavior of those who, as Jesus said “make heavy packs and pile them on men’s shoulders and do not raise a finger to lift the load themselves”.

Dr. King criticized the greed of modern society. He knew from Jesus that, “No man can serve God and money.” “We spend millions of dollars a day to store surplus food,” Dr. King said, “But I want to say to America ‘I know where you can store that food free of charge: in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God’s children who in Asia and Africa and South America and in our own nation who go to bed hungry tonight.”

Martin Luther King Jr. supported the idea of unions because of his belief in the teachings of the gospels. “The worker deserves his wages,” said Jesus. “I’m tired of this stuff about menial labor.” remarked Dr. King, “What makes it menial is that we don’t pay folks anything. Give somebody a job and pay them some money so they can live and educate their children and buy a home and have the basic necessities of life and no matter what the job is it takes on dignity.”

Rev. King believed in non-violence. He said, “We have a method as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mohandas K. Gandhi. We need not hate; we need not use violence.” Rev. King also protested the “unjust and senseless war in Vietnam.” “Blessed are the peacemakers”, said Jesus. It is a historical fact that the early Christians were opposed to military service and war. King said Congress appropriates “military funds with generosity” but “poverty funds with miserliness”. He saw a connection between economic injustice and militarism.

Martin Luther King Jr. believed in compassion for all people. He knew Jesus preached, “Be merciful. I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Jesus also said “You judge according to the flesh, I judge no one.” While Rev. King strongly condemned any ideas and behaviors that led to the ill treatment of people, he didn’t demonize his opponents. Dr. King and the non-violent civil rights movement were not in the least bit interested in punishment. They were interested in equal application of human rights to all people, including their opponents.  Rev. King sought to expand, not restrict, the rights of all people. King was never interested in moral sanctions. Referring to the eighth chapter of First Kings he said, “God does not judge us by the separate incidents or the separate mistakes we make, but by the total bent of our lives. Salvation isn’t reaching the destination of absolute, perfect morality; but it is being in the process and on the right road. ‘It is well that it was within thine heart.’ says the Bible”

Dr. King did not believe Christian faith was a rulebook to follow letter by letter; he knew Jesus said he brought “a new covenant of the spirit not the letter. For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” Dr. King believed that it is the spirit of the Bible, specifically the teachings of Jesus who is the reason for the entire Christian religion, which we should follow.  We must try to understand, as imperfectly as we can, the general meaning of the Bible. To Dr. King, getting lost in the letter of the Bible is to miss the spirit of it.  It is to miss the whole point of Jesus’ teachings.

King was forced by the evils of the time to defy amoral laws. By willingly going to jail, Dr. King demonstrated the greatest respect for the law (just like Jesus and many of today’s freedom lovers around the globe and in the United States).  He demonstrated the importance of laws by drawing attention to ones that were unjust or unjustly applied. Like Jesus, Dr. King was killed for challenging traditional belief. But left-wingers like Jesus and Dr. King made things better for us all in the long run.

Religious freedom day occurs about the same time of year as Martin Luther King Day. It was inaugurated by one of our more religious presidents, Franklin Roosevelt, at a time when America was more liberal, but also less tolerant of differences. Despite the victories against prejudice by Rev. King and those in the civil rights movement, we should still be concerned about prejudice against religion, not against our dominant Christian faiths but against non-Christian’s whether they are Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu or Atheist for that matter. Dr. King would not want our country’s laws and statutes to be based on a literal interpretation of the Christian Bible.

King once said in regards to the Supreme Court decision outlawing school prayer: “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 is to 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.”

The Reformation ended the Catholic Church’s monopoly on Christianity. It stemmed from a conviction that a person didn’t need a dogmatic, top-down, rule-bound, controlling priesthood to tell people what God wanted. People had the freedom to discover for themselves what the mystery of God meant to them. Dr. King knew this so he didn’t spend a lot of time telling people what to do in their private lives.

Rev. King risked his life by following the teachings of Jesus.  In a conservative country such as the United States, the civil rights movement faced an exponentially greater and stronger opposition than any fundamentalist Christians do today. Any movement that demands a non-dogmatic, compassionate, collective and progressive approach to solving common problems still faces massive resistance in our country.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s beliefs drove his actions, not just in a single speech in 1963, but throughout his life and ministry. I wish I could follow the teachings of Jesus half as well as Martin Luther King Jr. did.



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