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How Martin Luther King Jr.'s faith drove his activism

King delivers a sermon on May 13, 1956, in Montgomery, Alabama.
King delivers a sermon on May 13, 1956, in Montgomery, Alabama.
(Michael Ochs Archives/Getty)

"Don't ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn't fall in love, I rose in it." — Toni Morrison

On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps the 20th century's greatest champion of justice, was cowardly gunned down as he stood on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.

MLK cross

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Dozier Mobley/Getty)

Ever since that tragic evening, followers and critics of King have been obsessed with the question of his legacy. His goals have been hotly debated. His words probed, dissected, and recontextualized until they properly validate some contemporary social or political agenda.

It doesn't help our debates that King, like any historical leader, is not monolithic. His philosophy evolved and developed throughout his career, even as the principles undergirding his activism remained largely consistent.

But when you read and study King's life, one thing becomes exceedingly clear — he was marching to the beat of his own drum. Any attempt to appropriate that rhythm into one specific ideology runs the risk of reducing this towering figure down to nothing more than a cheap philosophical trinket.

King's legacy

What, then, is the meaning of King?

I put this question to Dr. J. Kameron Carter, professor of theology and black church studies at Duke Divinity School. Carter acknowledges there's a "struggle over the meaning of King" and a kind of "cultural hammering about, more broadly, the meaning of civil rights."

The key to understanding this figure, says Carter, is his faith: "He was a churchman from beginning to end.

"It's certainly the case that King's theological anthropology is front and center, though he didn't always cite it," says Anthony Bradley, professor of theology and ethics at The King's College in New York City. As Bradley notes, King was greatly influenced during his doctoral studies at Boston University by a theology known as personalism, which Rufus Burrow Jr. describes as "the philosophy that God is personal, and persons possess infinite, inviolable dignity."

Though King was raised in a family that practiced personalism, he was first introduced to its theological formulation at Morehouse College, where he earned his undergraduate degree. The president of Morehouse was Benjamin Elijah Mays, who, in 1946, wrote, "The destiny of each individual wherever he resides on the earth is tied up with the destiny of all men that inhabit the globe."

Years later, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, King would write something very similar: "We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

King's demand that black people be treated with dignity is the ethical implication of his theology that said they were created with dignity.

But if King was a churchman, as Carter says, it's important to note that he was a specific type of churchman: "We miss King if we don't highlight the theological significance of black church in America."

As Carter explains it, white churches that sprang up throughout American history did so in the pattern of the great European cathedrals and denominations from which they were transplanted. Black church, while it is related to those European frameworks, "is in excess of them," says Carter, meaning they "were already doing work beyond what those traditional denominations were doing."

"In the face of a modern condition that told Blacks they were only worthy of their labor power, black churches came along and affirmed that there was a mode of life far beyond the woundings that came along with black existence in America," he says.

This is the tradition that produced King. And it's the same tradition that produced other civil rights leaders, like Rosa Parks and Ella Baker.

It's from within this historical moment that King emerges, not as a singular visionary divorced from any context, but as a "reflection of the consciousness of the group." Just like a solo artist is no more than an emanation of the jazz band with which he is playing, so, too, says Carter, is King an emanation of the rhythms of his context of faith.

The last sermon

The night before his assassination, King delivered what was to become his final sermon. Popularly titled "I've Been to the Mountaintop," King's address at Mason Temple, the Church of God in Christ headquarters, is compelling for all the usual reasons — King's compassion, his fiery call for justice, his eloquent summation of his frustration with the unfeeling powers that be.

But the sermon, perhaps more than any of his other public addresses, is gripping for a different reason.

While attempting to fly to Memphis on April 3, King's plane was delayed by a bomb threat. When he later arrived to Mason Temple to preach, he felt compelled to address his brush with death. The possibility of assassination had, of course, crept insidiously around him since the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycotts. One decade before his April 3 sermon, he came dangerously close to dying, after being stabbed in the chest while signing autographs in Harlem.

And yet, in spite of the threat, King remained resolute. Here's how he addressed his possible assassination, just one night before it happened.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

King's eyes were squarely fixed on his goal. As James M. Washington put it in the introduction of a collection of King's speeches, "He dared to dream of a better day in the midst of the nightmare that surrounded him."

To dream of a day when America would finally own up to her past sins was staggeringly audacious. And this wasn't, to be clear, The American Dream. That Dream, quite literally, was built on the backs of black people — "dead working labor," Carter calls them — who were seen to have value only insofar as they provided labor for their masters. King's dream was much more subversive.

King's radical notion of love

In a sense, King's dream was the deconstruction of every other dream being pursued in the American democratic experiment, as Cornel West, philosopher and professor at Union Theological Seminary, explains:

The American Dream is individualistic. King's dream was collective. The American Dream says, "I can engage in upward mobility and live the good life." King's dream was fundamentally Christian. His commitment to radical love had everything to do with his commitment to Jesus of Nazareth, and his dream had everything to do with community, with a "we" consciousness that included poor and working people around the world, not just black people.

Because of King's subversive vision, West has described him as an "extremist of love." To understand why West believes King's love to be truly radical, you have to understand what exactly love means to King.

MLK with family

King at home with his family in May 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Modern notions of love, says Carter, "cannot bear the weight of what King was talking about." Much different than impassioned affection or sentimentalism, the love King preached and practiced was lifted straight from the New Testament's teachings on agape, the Greek word used for the love of God, which King defines as "an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return."

"King's love talk came out of what it means to love your neighbor," says Bradley, referring to Jesus' injunction in the Gospel of Mark. To Jesus, he says, loving your neighbor means loving a Samaritan; it means loving a Gentile, if you're a Jew. Loving your neighbor, says Bradley, "means loving people that don't love you back, because God commands love as a means by which the world is completely turned upside down."

James Baldwin famously said, "Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle; love is a war; love is a growing up." Carter thinks King's notion of love is similar to Baldwin's, or Toni Morrison's, who summed up its inexorable nature in Beloved: "Thin love ain't no love at all."

King, like these two writers, is talking about love "in ways that point toward forms of life that are non-exclusionary," says Carter. To speak of love in this manner, he says, is to speak of "a form of being together, a mass gathering that does not need an exterior against which to position itself." Further, this call for love is being issued "in the face of a political arrangement built upon the need to presuppose a boundary between the inside and outside," he says.

King's notion of love really was revolutionary in that it threatened to undo the social stratifications that undergird our modern world. "In that sense," says West, "he turned the world on its head."

Carter offered the following illustration to help make the point:

To love my daughter, if I'm seeing her about to put finger in an electrical outlet, is to pull her back from the brink of doing that. What does love look like in that moment? Love looks like a harrowing, breath-taking movement to my daughter, reaching out in profound affection, trying to grab her and pull her back at the very moment of electrocution. That's what "I love you" looks like, and that's what King was doing.

King's philosophy of love wasn't just intellectual; there were practical reasons to practice agape love. For one thing, he argues, returning hate for hate "only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe." Every act of hatred, even when it comes from the oppressed, adds to "the tragic midnight of injustice."

If the goal was, as King believed, to truly create a new world of reconciled humanity, then the path of hatred would never lead there. "If we retaliate with hate and bitterness," he said, "the new age will be nothing but a duplication of the old age."

Yes, those who were marginalized in the first world might come out on top in the second. But King taught that the purpose of the struggle wasn't to put whites on the bottom and blacks on top — the purpose was to bring to pass a world in which unjust hierarchies had no place.

King understood his struggle to be a structural one. He saw a difference between the systems that empowered his opponents and his actual, flesh-and-blood opponents. He saw, in other words, a difference between evil and evildoers — and his struggle was with the first.

Moreover, he taught, evil was to be found not only under one particular skin color. For all of us, our "is-ness" and our "ought-ness" are eternally at odds with each other. "Within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good," he said.

There's also a self-interested reason for loving your enemy, King teaches. If you let hate overtake you, you will only end up distorting your own humanity in the long run.

For the person who hates, you can stand up and see a person and that person can be beautiful, and you will call them ugly. For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That's what hate does. You can't see right. The symbol of objectivity is lost. Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.

As King often said, hate is too great a burden to bear, which is why he "decided to stick with love."

Responding to violence

It might seem frustrating to hear King admonish his followers to offer their oppressors forgiveness and understanding.

After all, half a century has passed since King announced his dream to the 200,000-strong crowd at the Lincoln Memorial, and it has yet to be fully realized. Some aspects of it have come to fruition. But in so many other ways that dream continues to march too slowly toward its implementation.

How could King preach to people who had been imprisoned and beaten about Jesus's commandment to love thy neighbor? Was there not a more encouraging, not to mention expedient, way to rally them together in their struggle for justice? Why not tell them violence was acceptable when their lives were in danger, or their families' lives were in danger?

This is why, says Bradley, "King wasn't as popular as we think he was in the black community." Indeed, plenty of those in the community, particularly youth, were frustrated with King's approach to civil rights, which some saw as weak and ineffective, says Bradley. "Many did not believe that his approach would bring change fast enough."

This disagreement over strategy is sometimes dramatized sharply in contemporary discourses on King, which often pit the minister against Malcolm X, a civil rights leader whose advocacy of violence and black power is well known.

King and Malcolm

King and Malcolm X waiting for a press conference, March 26, 1964. (Marion S.Trikoskor/Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

But on Carter's reading, it's incorrect to pit the two leaders against each other, since both are, in their own way, "attempting to deal with the violence that precedes them."

Carter wants "to unask the question" of King's nonviolence since it "obscures the fact that modern political nation-states are born in violence. They're predicated upon violence."

The decimation of Native Americans, says Carter, is a situation of violence. Jim Crow is a situation of violence. Vietnam is a situation of violence.

How, then, asks Carter, do you negotiate a situation that is, from the beginning, violent? When we frame the question this way, he says, we shift the focus from those who are forced to respond to violent situations to those who instigate them, from King and Malcolm to the nation that dared them to respond. For this reason, Carter says he prefers to see the two men as insurgent resistors, using different strategies to accomplish their goals.

King acknowledged as much in a letter to Malcolm's widow, after he'd been killed. "While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had the great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem."

MLK chicago

King gives a speech at a Chicago Freedom Movement rally in Soldier Field, Chicago, Illinois, July 10, 1966. (Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

A voice that continues to cry out

Even if the differences between King and Malcolm are exaggerated by contemporary readers, it's important to note them. King, unlike Malcolm, wasn't trying to lead a black nationalist movement. For that matter, King wasn't trying to lead any political movement. He was a preacher — a churchman, as Carter says — tasked with leading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which had a "distinctly Christian way of going about civil disobedience and protest," says Bradley.

For King, then, the primary question was not which method should be used to march — though that, of course, was important to ask. The primary question was, what is our motivation for marching? And that question was settled for him from the very beginning.

Though shades of his philosophy changed toward the end of his life, specifically as he voiced his vehement opposition to American militarism as it engaged with Vietnam, his motivation didn't falter. "Yes, Jesus," he preached a few short months before his assassination,

I want to be on your right or your left side, not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your best side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition, but I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.

His dream of a new world, deferred as it was, remained on full view right to the very end of his life. Guiding him through the dark night of injustice was his unflagging belief that the arc of the moral universe, though long, surely does bend toward justice.

Though debates continue as to the efficacy or reasonableness of his strategies, King's legacy of love — a revolutionary, fiery, exacting kind of love — is beyond dispute, even if it sometimes seems beyond our understanding.

Why, we might ask, in the face of death, did he continue to practice and preach the principles of nonviolence? Why did he continue to speak out for love, in the name of love, to a nation overflowing with hatred? Why speak about understanding one's enemies, and working for reconciliation, and striving for the common good when he knew that kind of speech came with such a high cost?

It is here that the voice of Dr. King rushes toward us from the pulpit of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church:

There is still a voice crying out in terms that echo across the generations, saying: Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you, that you may be the children of your Father which is in Heaven.

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