Realizing MLK Was a Liberal Christian

Martin Luther KingMartin Luther King Day is perfect to revive my once-a-year series on Martin Luther King, Jr. This entry will discuss King's liberal Christianity.

I first starting thinking about this after reading an essay in, "Why Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't a UU" by Rosemary Bray McNatt. The piece quotes Coretta Scott King:
Oh, I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin. And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston. We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.
I agree with McNatt that this statement caused me surprise and sadness, but that quickly passed with the realization that it was undoubtedly true. For McNatt, a black woman UU minister, this fact "pierced my heart and troubled my mind, then and now." She goes on to say that King eventually left the fold of religious liberals, but I think he remained a liberal Christian.

How liberal? Let's go right to the hard nut: the centrality of Jesus of Nazareth. Using as my source, I searched through King's speeches for "Jesus" and "Christ." Neither are mentioned in a couple of major speeches:A couple mention Jesus or Christ once in passing. Speech at the Great March on Detroit, June 23, 1963, Detroit, Michigan: "And so they are saying, 'Love or perish.' But Jesus told us this a long time ago." Our God is Marching On (How long? Not long!), March 25, 1965, Montgomery, Alabama:
If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow.
When Jesus or Christ are mentioned more than once, the most common usage in these speeches is social and educational, not theological. All these phrases are used multiple times:
  • the teachings of Jesus
  • the church is the Body of Christ
  • the ministry of Jesus Christ
Finally, there are two speeches that deal directly with the ministry of Jesus or its effects. They are both problematic for orthodox Christianity.

Loving Your Enemies, November 17, 1957, was one of the few speeches where Jesus was the main topic. Obviously, it dealt with Jesus' teaching of radical love. But the sermon emphasizes the nature of the philosophy itself, not the theological standing of Jesus. Christ is used only twice in the sermon: "Because of the power and influence of the personality of this Christ, he was able to split history into A.D. and B.C." and "In the name and spirit of this Christ, we pray. Amen." So in a speech about a core teaching of Jesus, it fails to mention either the incarnation or resurrection of Christ. The first mention actually trivializes Jesus' power and influence usually claimed by Christians. The second is a standard coda. What is most unusual about these mentions is the use of "this" in front of "Christ." That explicitly makes "Christ" a non-unique identifier, reviving the common noun's original Greek meaning of "anointed." "This Christ" would be blasphemy for the majority of Christians.

Eulogy for the Martyred Children, September 18, 1963, Birmingham, Alabama, talks about salvation, the core Christian doctrine of everlasting life for believers in Christ.
I hope you can find some consolation from Christianity's affirmation that death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.
On the surface it endorses everlasting life, but in extremely weak words. How many Christians would call eternal salvation an "affirmation" or a "surmise"? Only the most liberal.

I'm writing this series in order to remember Martin Luther King, Jr., not memorialize him. He was a remarkable man, but a man still the same. That means he was both better and worse than what we generally talk about today. The best way to honor him is to go directly to the man himself. There is plenty of audio, video and articles online. Go and listen, watch and read him. A good place to start would be a Martin Luther King special on Democracy Now!

After the jump are two local MSP MLK Day links and some readings on King's anti-war stance.

UPDATE: Local MSP flavor: KFAI's Monday drive-time show, Bop Street with Pete Lee, devoted its two hours to MLK related music. Last year's MLK post included a link to audio from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast in Minneapolis. They must have a good funding source, because they lined up another A-List speaker this year, Newark Mayor Corey Booker.

UPDATE II: Jeh Johnson, the General Counsel at the Pentagon, said King would have supported the war in Afghanistan. What's next? Cesar Chavez would have supported Arizona SB 1070?

"King Talks About War" Amy Davidson, The New Yorker.

"No Room for the Pentagon's Wars in Dr. King's Dream" Robert Greenwald, Huffington Post.

"The Misuse of Martin Luther King, Jr." Mark Engler, Dissent.

Dr. King's own words from a speech on April 4th, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City:
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” And I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.
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 South 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 lay a hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.
That's pretty radical.