Over the last few weeks, like many of you, I was doing some thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr. and what we can continue to learn from his legacy, his thinking, and of course his example. More than any other American Christian, his life embodied the life of Jesus–both in what he preached, and in his almost-inevitable death. And, like Jesus, he is now universally lauded, while his words are twisted to every possible political end, even in support of a bogus “post-racial” society.
Last year, I posted an article to facebook that detailed many of his early theological beliefs, and they were overwhelmingly liberal. This was news to me at the time, because while everyone is taught about Martin Luther King, Jr., the version we get today is a heroic, triumphalist one that, while positive, roots him solidly in the past and at least attempts to prevent his words from continuing to resonate. As a seminary student, he had strong doubts about the factual truth of the Bible, referring to it as largely mythological. And even as a young man, he was a strong critic of the history of the Christian church, how it had perpetrated and perpetuated many evils, including offering a prop to slavery and segregation.
When these early papers were published about a decade ago, liberal Christians rejoiced (and me too, when I learned about them) because now they could claim Dr. King for their own theological side. Not only was he a hero for social justice, but he also had doubts about the virgin birth! In the facebook post, I argued that if we were going to model ourselves after Dr. King and claim him as America’s prophet, then we should spend more time studying what he actually believed. That is still true, but trying to claim him for any theological (and therefore political) side does his legacy a disservice, just as as history books do that present his life only as the struggle for a kind of racial colorblindness.
Dr. King can be confounding to theologians of any stripe. For conservatives, those early liberal papers are troubling, but for many liberals, so is his almost mystical identification with a personal Jesus. Conservatives want to believe that his views on an intellectual Christianity changed as he got older, and liberals want to believe that he did not preach about them strategically–because he did not want to alienate moderates and conservatives from the cause for justice.
Here’s what I think: he just didn’t care. Whether or not God spoke to Moses literally through a burning bush, or whether or not there even was an historical Moses at all seems pretty weak tea when faced with the oppression of millions of human beings. Christians are so easily distracted from our real, God-given, work. All the Enemy (again, metaphorical or not or both) has to do is ask us how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and we are immediately at each other’s throats, ignoring those who need us most. An intellectual Christianity is useful insofar as it can lead one to see beyond the exclusions that legalism and fundamentalism brings. But if it prevents you for one moment from answering God’s call to fight injustice, or weighs you down with a smug sense of pride, chuck it. It’s a waste of time.
And now, just as in Dr. King’s day, we have so little time. Our brothers and sisters are still facing systemic oppression because of the color of their skin. Refugees and immigrants are “welcomed” with both physical and rhetorical violence. The income gap between the “haves” and “have nots” is growing at an astounding rate. Palestinians and others throughout the world live under violent occupation. LGBTQ persons are threatened, attacked, mocked, and excluded from families and churches. Instead of helping the poor and voiceless through advocacy and direct aid, they are ridiculed as “lazy” and labeled dangerous. Peaceful protesters are routinely met with tear gas, violence, and jail time. The list goes on and on. If the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. teaches us anything, it is that those of us on the side of God, the side of human dignity and love, have a LOT of work to do. And almost none of it has to do with whether or not Jesus could REALLY walk on water.