The Spirituality of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 14, 2001
It is sometimes easy to forget that he was a member of the clergy, that he was a Baptist minister. At this time of year, we hear much about Dr. King’s oratorical skills; about his place as political leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient; we hear about his place as a role model to an entire generation of African Americans. But his personal religion-- his theology-- his spirituality-- remain, in the popular eye at least, largely neglected and unexamined.
But a good case can be made, I think, that if we don’t understand Martin Luther King’s religion, then we really don’t understand Martin Luther King. While the basic motivation for Dr. King’s desire for civil rights may have been that he was an African American born into a deeply racist society, I think we need to look deeper to really know him:
It was Martin Luther King’s spirituality and his deep religious faith which fanned the flames of his basic human desire for freedom and which provided him to emerge as the leader of his people’s struggle. It was this faith which gave him the strength and inspiration and hope he needed to articulate and persevere-- and articulate that desire in a way which could stir the courage of a people and awaken the conscience of an entire nation.
We have to look deeper; we have to look at his faith:
He was born into the black church in the American South, of course. His father was a successful and prosperous Baptist minister at Ebeneezer Baptist Church in the heart of downtown Atlanta. Young Martin grew up on a steady diet of gospel preaching, with the church as the center of community life, and the minister the ordained spokesman for God Himself. His life was rooted in the radically concrete and imminent spirituality of the black church, a spirituality rooted firmly in the bittersweet experience of day-to-day living.
As Julius Lester has written: “When the black preacher shouts, ‘God is a living God!’, don’t argue. Get ready to shake hands with the Lord Almighty.” When in his later orations, Dr. King would say something like, “I talked to God this morning, and I said, now listen here, Lord, you got to do something with these white folks down here. Lord, they are giving us a hard time. You got to do something.”-- he meant it in a much more direct sense than those of us more detached and intellectual in our religious approach can ever understand.
In traditional black spirituality, God is like a personal friend, with whom you can talk person-to-person. As Julius Lester continues: “A black church congregation doesn’t want to be told about God. They want to feel him, see him, and touch him. It is the preacher’s responsibility to see that they do.”
His growth within the African American church helped to imbue Martin Luther King Jr.’s spirituality with the basic, direct, unadorned strength and courage of the simple folk among whom he lived there. It was this loving nurture, as well as this fundamental faith in a God whose name was Hope, which would continue to undergird Dr. King’s life, and give him the strength he needed to carry on, leading his people’s long, hard journey toward freedom.
But while Dr. King’s faith was certainly fundamental to him, it was not fundamentalist. Other factors beside the Baptist doctrine of his childhood went into his spiritual development. King was also the product of a wide and liberal seminary education which helped to imbue his faith with intellectual breadth that might have been lacking had he not looked beyond the relatively narrow walls of the church of his upbringing and the faith of his father.
He graduated from high school in 1944 at the age of 15, and he enrolled at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He hadn’t yet quite decided on the ministry or medicine as a career. He quickly outgrew a brief period of doubt and skepticism; decided finally to follow his father into the ministry; then settled down to his first in-depth study of the Bible and systematic theology. It was at Morehouse, Dr. King wrote, that “the shackles of fundamentalism were removed” from his mind. It was there, too, that Dr. King realized that one need not see the Bible as literally true to grasp the truth that the Bible contains, or, as he wrote himself: “I came to see that behind the legends and myths of the Book were many profound truths which one could not escape.”
In 1948, Martin Luther King continued his theological education by enrolling at Crozer Seminary, then located just outside of Philadelphia. Here, he was introduced to the “Social Gospel” theology of Walter Rausenbusch, which saw the biblical idea of the Kingdom of God as best reflected in the quest for a socially just and equitable society.
At first, King seems to have been quite taken by the wildly optimistic theology of Rausenbusch, but soon he was also introduced to the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, who believed that Rausenbusch’s emphasis on the power of Christian love and the perfectibility of human nature to advance the cause of social justice were hopelessly misplaced and naive. Niebuhr thought that there was a need to pay more attention to the corroding influences of human selfishness and sin, and the use of power in personal relationships and in society at large.
From Crozer on, these two strains of 20th Century Christian theology-- the social gospel of Rausenbusch and the unsentimentalized view of Niebuhr-- would coexist in tension within Martin Luther King, Jr. While he would always embrace the central idea of the social gospel movement-- that Christian love could motivate people to transform the world-- he also was a theological realist who understood that wishful thinking alone is not enough to transcend the powerful, complex forces of human evil. He came to see that there was a need for direct political action if the just society was ever to be built.
It was at about this time, too, that King made his first acquaintance with Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha, or “soul force”. Through his reading of the works of Gandhi, King was introduced, perhaps for the first time, to the religious world beyond Christianity. It was from Gandhi that he gained many of the ideals and insights that would serve as the basis of the nonviolent civil rights movement in America which King would later lead.
Throughout these formative years, Martin Luther King yearned for a religion that was intellectually sound, but which didn’t live in his head alone-- a faith that was both intellectually solid and emotionally satisfying. He had been blessed with a keen mind, and he appreciated the power of human reason. But he also knew that life was too complex to be explained away through reason alone, and there were powers in history which human reason alone could never fully understand. He was the author of a scholarly doctoral thesis from Boston University on “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman”. But he was also, ever, the black preacher who could arouse a congregation’s hearts and have them shouting “Amens” and “Hallelujahs” with the best of them.
As he matured and became more deeply involved in the struggles of his people, his thinking matured and his spirituality deepened as well. On emerging from one of his early prison experiences, he commented: “I think I received a new understanding of the meaning of suffering. I came away more convinced than ever before that unearned suffering is redemptive.”
“The cross we bear precedes the crown we wear,” he said in 1963, at the height of the civil rights struggle. “To be a Christian, one must take up his cross, with all of its difficulties and agonizing and tension-packed content and carry it until that very cross leaves its mark upon us and redeems us in that more excellent way which comes only through suffering.”
Through his life and his work, Dr. King learned much about the power of suffering-- and about the power of prayer.
When A.D. Nixon of the Montgomery NAACP called him on that day late in 1956 to tell him of Rosa Parks’s arrest on a bus for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, King’s first response was: “Brother Nixon, let me think about it a while, and call me back.” And then he went and prayed-- and saw clearly the critical importance of the moment that was at hand and the role he was being called to play. For King, as for so many other genuine spiritual leaders, prayer was not merely a matter of private devotion; it was, rather, an important tool for bringing about deep and widespread social change. For Martin Luther King, Jr., spirituality was no mere escape, isolating him from the world and its problems. To the contrary, spirituality was the means through which the Word of God-- God’s love and justice and compassion-- became flesh and are made manifest in the life of the world.
In time, Martin Luther King came to believe that the nature and workings of God were ultimately mysterious to us human beings. While he was a man deeply committed to his Christian faith, he also once said: “I’ll take a committed heathen over an uncommitted Christian any day.” He knew from his own experience that the reality of God’s presence was just too large-- too universal-- to be confined to any set of human categories. What mattered ultimately for human beings was not theological debate or the fine points of creed and doctrine, but that each human being should display “a heart full of grace; a soul generated by love”-- whatever the theoretical or theological basis of this grace and love might be.
“We are hammers, not anvils, in the historical process,” he taught. In the depths of his soul, as a fundamental religious affirmation, Dr. King believed that men and women were not creatures alienated from Life, but rather co-creators with God in bringing to birth a new world.
But the work that we faced was so great, King knew, that we could not rely on our small, human powers alone to complete it. Let that fateful night in Montgomery, he had his epiphany:
“And I discovered that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself,” he learned that night. “And it seemed to me at that moment, I could hear an inner voice saying, ‘Martin Luther King, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even unto the end of the world.’... He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
In spite of all his education and sophistication, at his moment of greatest need, Martin Luther King returned to the faith of his childhood. But he returned not as a dependent child, but as a responsible adult who knew well all the demands that life could make. But still he understood that if he was to continue down the road that was yet ahead of him, he needed the simple, direct, strength and hope and courage of that God who had never failed to watch over him from the time of his birth.
The truly heroic example of this great man offers such a profound blessing to the times in which we live. His dream reflects the fundamental essence of the American dream; his example calls forth the deepest truths that are etched at the soul of the American experience. But even while he calls upon us to awaken again to our ideals, his voices calls out to us still, these 32 years since his death, not merely to look back, but to march forward.
His is voice still calls out to us to move beyond the debris that litters too much our national history.
His voice still calls out to us to move beyond slavery and Jim Crow and lynchings and discrimination and the selfishness and prejudice that have all too often marred our national experience.
His voice calls out to us to move beyond the spectre of homelessness and poverty and exploitation and moral nihilism and corporate totalitarianism and base materialism that too often mar the portrait of who we are as a nation today.
His voice still calls out to us to come home again to a New World: a New World as wide as the whole world; a New World of justice, freedom, responsibility, hope, and peace for all humankind.
We, too, have dreams. We, too, have lives to lead and roads down which we must travel. And may we, too, in these midnight times of our own souls-- at this bankrupt time of our national soul-- be strong enough to reach out to those universal forces of love and reconciliation and grace. May we be strong enough to go deep within ourselves, and emerge with a vision of love and justice-- and emerge with the courage we will need to make that vision real.
We, too, have hopes and dreams for this, our dear land of hope and dreams.