Dr. King's Christianity
Two things are immediately obvious in the writing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: his deep religious conviction and his radical sense of social justice. Part of King's involuntary legacy is a watering down of that social radicalism. But – in an odd turn, given his lionization in conservative politics – his religious conviction is severed and tempered in parallel fashion. Likely because its implications are inconvenient.
We remember, of course, that he was a preacher, but we reduce his message merely to one of anti-racism which simultaneously allows us to extinguish his religious radicalism in public memory. The reduction of King's message to one purely of anti-racism – the trimming of militarism and poverty from his "three evils" – makes his message easier to stomach but also reduces the connection of his religious belief and activism. Separating the complex and revolutionary social message of Dr. King's activism from his early struggles for legal equality leaves us with a simplified Sunday School sort of "love thy neighbor" vision of his message. Just as we smile and nod at the Jesus of the Golden Rule while skipping the Jesus who rampaged through the temple, gave unto Caesar, and lived in poverty among outcasts; we sever King's faith and radicalism in a way that makes his ruthless indictment of institutional Christianity much easier to ignore.
Dr. King's vision of a world where people could be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character was never separable from his vision of "the total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty." The mere fact of his commitment to nonviolence was moral but also practical in a country whose white citizens he felt could not be shaken without being dramatically confronted with the violence inherent in the social order they endorsed. He – following in the footsteps of Coretta Scott – was also ferociously anti-war and opposed nuclear arms, what he saw as "neocolonialist" foreign intervention in Africa and the Americas, and most of all the escalating conflict in Vietnam.
But Dr. King was not an activist and a preacher. He was a preacher and religious scholar whose reading of scripture and profound faith allowed for nothing less than his radical activism.
Even his most radical positions were informed by his Christianity:
"But the real reason that we must use our resources to outlaw poverty goes beyond material concerns to the quality of our mind and spirit. Deeply woven into the fiber of our religious tradition is the conviction that men are made in the image of God, and that they are souls of infinite metaphysical value. If we accept this as a profound moral fact, we cannot be content to see men hungry, to see men victimized with ill-health, when we have the means to help them."
"An intelligent approach to the problems of poverty and racism will cause us to see that the words of the Psalmist – 'The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof' – are still a judgement upon our use and abuse of the wealth and resources with which we have been endowed. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. We are called to play the good samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey though life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
Ronald Reagan signed into law the bill that made Dr. King's birthday a national holiday. He initially opposed the bill brought forward by the Congressional Black Caucus (for budgetary reasons, of course). Several Congressional Republicans opposed it too, citing King's "action-oriented marxism" (King wrote in 1967 that "The good and just society is neither the thesis of capitalism nor the antithesis of communism, but a socially conscious democracy which reconciles the truths of individualism and collectivism" but my guess is that Congress wasn't much for nuance, even then). When the bill finally passed, it passed into public memory a version of Dr. King that was cleansed of his radical advocacy, socialism, and pacifism. It's hard to imagine that decision as anything but an attempt to avoid canonizing a man whose critique of his country was foundational. If we must canonize him, it will be without the critique. I suspect that the separation of his faith and his activism served a similar purpose. His critique of Christianity was foundational.
Of course, Dr. King never criticized Christianity as a whole, but he reserved a hotter passion for Christians who turned their backs on the cause of justice. While he marveled at the strength that his Southern Christian Leadership Council drew from their Christianity as they fought segregation across the south, he reserved a special sort of indignation for Christians who prized order over equality. His "Letter from Birmingham Jail," and his Why We Can't Wait are ruthless indictments of the "white moderate" (the former addressed quite explicitly to clergy and men of faith who questioned his activism in Birmingham). His most radical social propositions were couched in arguments that questioned the very validity of a faith divorced from social justice.
In Why We Can't Wait, he describes the argument that won over black clergy in Birmingham who were wary of his organization's activism:
"To the ministers I stressed the need for a social gospel to supplement the gospel of individual salvation. I suggested that only a 'dry as dust' religion prompts a minister to extol the glories of heaven while ignoring the social conditions that cause men an earthly hell."
This is not the Christianity that I was familiar with growing up. For eighteen years I went to church or bible studies two or three times a week. There was nothing wrong with it, but I drifted away after a while. I came of political age, however, in a world where Christianity held a different significance entirely. A political Christianity unburdened by collective social problems. A political Christianity of wealth-obsessed Joel Osteens ("When you focus on being a blessing, God makes sure that you are always blessed in abundance") and perpetually victimized Franklin Grahams ("The world is attacking Christians because they hate the name of Christ. And President Trump has been defending Christians") and antagonistic Jerry Falwell Jrs ("My father spent all those years building his brand. I happen to be his namesake, and I also happen to be the president of the largest Christian university. I think I have a responsibility to be a good citizen. The least I can do is to lend my name and whatever influence I have to make a difference politically").
The Christianity I often feel like I know is one where television pastors use their cult of personality to divide and condemn and to strip the poor and marginalized of their dignity, all the while tweeting in commemoration of Martin Luther King Day or comparing him to their favored political candidate (no matter how ludicrous).
Dr. King serves as something of a reminder to progressives and those who value social change that they should search for allies in unlikely places. His work serves as a reminder that southern, traditional Christianity in the right hands is as much a motivator as righteous politics. But it's impossible to ignore the implications of his words for the religion that dominated my life and remains central to the social fabric of this country.
Christianity is not right, nor is it wrong, nor is it exclusive, nor are its proponents chosen. Dr. King spoke of his own faith, but only in the context of love and compassion, without which his faith was "dry-as-dust." In Where Do We Go From Here, the book in which he argues for the permanent abolition of poverty through universal employment and guaranteed income, he writes:
"When I speak of love, I am speaking of that force which all the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality."
Diving headfirst into King's writing serves as a reminder that the faith to which I gave more than half my life and to which my parents still devote theirs contains much more than cultural conservatism. At its best, it inspires earth-shaking compassion, revolutionary social justice, and radical generosity of spirit. But it's also a reminder that Christianity, like any faith, is a rorschach test in which there is little concrete. It inspires compassion only in those who wish it to do so. It makes just only those who value justice.