Martin Luther King Jr. secured his place in U.S. history as a civil rights leader, but there is a growing belief he also was among this century’s greatest theologians.
Those steeped in King’s work say the civil rights movement never would have gotten off the ground without his articulate appeal for racial justice within the context of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the Old Testament prophets.
“In many ways, Martin Luther King Jr. has already eclipsed Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Rauschenbusch and other theologians he studied,” said Terry Matthews, religious history professor at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C.
In one of his courses, Matthews lists the four building blocks of King’s theology:
Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of satyagrapha, or nonviolence.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which requires Christians to love their enemies.
Georg Hegel’s dialectic, the theory that every situation brings about its opposite, and the conflict of the two creates something new.
Reinhold Niebuhr’s social evil, which is so great that Christians are obligated to oppose it.
King combined these ideas with the divine liberation theme of the black church and Rauschenbusch’s social gospel and then took them out of the ivory tower and put them on the street, Matthews said.
The result was a new theology set in the context of the black church and the experience of oppressed Americans, Matthews said.
Fighting evil was central to King’s thought, said Noel Erskine, associate professor of theology and ethics at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.
“He did theology in the context of the struggle to make life better for oppressed people. King went further than anybody else in that respect,” Erskine said.
“He wasn’t content with getting blacks the right to eat at restaurants,” Erskine said. “He wanted reconciliation and equality.
“That meant blacks could sit at the conference table and help decide their own future.”
King’s major contribution to theology, Erskine said, was his insistence that theologians must “work from within the struggle” to relate faith to social conditions, must be willing to sacrifice their lives in the struggle for justice and must set Christian theology in the context of reconciliation.
The basis of King’s doctrine of reconciliation is the covenant God has with all his children and creation, Erskine said, adding:
“This covenant requires that the means for liberation be consistent with the ends sought. Because the end is a restored and reconciled community, the only appropriate means for struggle is nonviolence.”
For the Rev. Claude Black, pastor of Mount Zion First Baptist Church in San Antonio and a central figure in integration efforts in the city in the 1950s and 1960s, King’s theology came not from white academics but from deep roots in the black church.
“Blacks came to this country completely separated from their culture and history,” Black said. “They adapted by becoming Israel seeking the Promised Land and by their leaders becoming Moses.”
King’s belief that love and an appeal to conscience could overthrow segregation wasn’t welcome to many blacks, the pastor said.
“They had dealt with justice and equality primarily as legal issues,” Black said. “King’s way of nonviolent resistance promised quicker results but also was more dangerous.”
“(Blacks) weren’t happy the way things were but feared King’s way would bring opprobrium down on them from the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Councils, making things worse,” he said.
“But King realized that change comes through conflict going back to Reinhold Niebuhr. King knew almost intuitively that there had to be conflict,” Matthews said.
When white religious leaders urged blacks not to support demonstrations advocated by “outsiders,” King’s now famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” became a ringing challenge to them and to white theology, Matthews said.
“He asked them whose side they thought God was really on - the side of those seeking their basic constitutional rights or those seeking to maintain the status quo.
“He asked if a person can be Christian without doing anything in the face of monumental evil,” Matthews said.
Earlier theologians failed both to consider their role in critiquing social evil and to participate actively in struggles against it, said Lewis Baldwin, religion professor at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., and author of several books on King.
“Western culture had thought of theologians as ‘armchair intellectuals’ who sat in comfortable, carpeted offices articulating abstract ideas about God,” he said.