Let’s Go to Theology Class: Martin Luther King, Jr. on Love and Justice

The following is from my class in Christian Ethics in pursuit of an M.A. in Theological Studies.

Martin Luther King, Jr. held a remarkable ethical position based upon love and justice, decrying a violent response to violence. King believed in the doctrine of imago Dei—man is created in the image of God. King’s non-violent approach to racism has its roots in Christianity. He said freedom requires taking a stand against racial inequality on the solid rock of brotherhood; of making justice available to all of God’s children. Yet he said the American Negro must never be guilty of “wrongful deeds to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” He promoted loving one’s enemy.

Billy Graham echoed this sentiment in his seminal Peace with God. Graham wrote, “When true Christians look at other people, they see no color, nor class, nor condition, but simply human beings with the same longings, needs and aspirations as our own” (1). Near the end of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). King desired to bring America to the place where it would recognize its own evil (2). There is a deontological base to King’s approach, rooted in the attributes of God. King often quoted Scripture regarding loving those who persecute us. It is my opinion that King followed a deontological theory of ethics.

I am impressed with King’s ability to remain committed to Christian ethics in promoting social justice. He was a preacher and a social evangelist, but he was also a representative member of the very people on whose behalf he spoke. His philosophy was like that of other abolitionists and progressive social reformers of the 1960s who were part of a historical progressive movement rooted in and energized by religion. Today, such reformers continue to strive for social justice. Modern progressives live and move in a largely secular vein. In the 60s, King and others used Scripture in a way that showed a lived theology, and it brilliantly presented social reforms consistent with the virtue-based system of Christian ethics. King’s ideas were therefore not his own; they were grounded in the character traits of Jesus Christ and closely followed the attributes of God the Father. Two of God’s key attributes—love and justice—were central to King’s message.

Jesus was a social reformer in that He taught us that “leper’s lives matter,” “Samaritan lives matter,” “Jewish lives matter,” “Gentile lives matter,” “children’s lives matter.” For me, the slogan “all lives matter” tends to blur the idea that Jesus reaches everyone individually. He died for each person regardless of their being a tax collector, fisherman, harlot, outcast, police officer, young Black man, Latina woman, or militant Muslim. All lives matter might sound like a wonderful mantra on its surface. Stephen Mattson writes, “Even though Jesus loves everyone, even to the point of dying for their sins, he went out of his way to intentionally help specific groups of people — the alienated, mistreated, and those facing injustice. Saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ and participating in a movement seeking justice, positive reform, and empowerment is one of the most Christ-like things we can do.

The Following is a Comment from My Professor:

Many thanks, as always, for your strong work on this post. I think you did a nice job of sketching the main contours of Dr. King’s ethical approach, which I do think is broadly deontological in that his most fundamental convictions stem from a plain sense reading of the Christian Scriptures and the commands they contain. That is not to say that Dr. King does not draw on other ethical models (I think he clearly does), but that this is his dominant mode of ethical reflection.

I was intrigued by your comments on Billy Graham, who makes for an interesting conversation partner for Dr. King in this discussion. Like just about everyone else from his era, Graham did have a mixed record when it came to race relations, but it is the case that he held integrated rallies and even shared the stage with Dr. King. But I wonder—and this is where I’d be grateful for your input—what do you think Dr. King would make of Graham’s comment that “true Christians see no color”?

The reason I ask is that, while MLK did “dream” of a day when people would not be judged by the color of their skin, it doesn’t seem to me that he dreamed of a day when no one would see the color of his skin. It’s a complicated question, I realize, especially in our cultural moment. But I would be grateful to hear your thoughts on this important subject.

The Following is My Reply:

Thank you for your response to my initial discussion post. I truly enjoyed this week’s assignment for several reasons, but foremost (as befitting the current turmoil in America over social justice) is King’s persistence in putting forth a public persona that exemplified the ministry of Jesus.

It was through college that King learned to understand justice as love in action. Was he a preacher first, and then a voice for social change, or did he have a vein of social justice running through him before he became ordained and started preaching? I read somewhere that King said, “We must pray earnestly for peace, but we must work vigorously for disarmament.” Was this pragmatic approach rooted in Scripture or social justice? Charles R. Johnson wrote, “[King] was more than just the civil rights leader he is remembered as today. [He] was one of America’s greatest moral and political philosophers, his life founded on deep, sophisticated and courageous spiritual convictions” (3).

King dreamed of a day when human beings would no longer judge a man by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I believe Billy Graham was expressing the same ideal, but chose to remark that true Christians do not see color, class, or condition. I think MLK and Graham were on the same page regarding racism and social justice. Graham exclusively expressed his social justice theory on Christian doctrine: man must emulate the forgiveness and acceptance of Christ, and the grace and mercy of the Father. “True Christians” must see the world in a Christ-like manner. Jesus did not see Samaritan, Jew, Gentile, sinner in the same way most of mankind does. I believe if Christ were here today, He would not see “color, class, or condition.” King pragmatically said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” He might have said those words to Johnson at the White House.

I believe MLK would support Graham’s remarks. Moreover, we cannot ignore or “see past” color, class, or condition as part of our theory of social justice. It is not appropriate to see, describe, treat as, or otherwise interact with people of color as if they were “neutral,” or “not Black.” This seems like a subtle form of discrimination. It could seem to be disingenuous at best.

Footnotes

(1) Billy Graham, Peace with God: The Secret of Happiness (Nashville: W Publishing Group), 1953,1984.

(2) “The Baptist convictions of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Journal of European Baptist Studies, 9(1), 5-21.

(3) Charles R. Johnson, “The King We Need: Martin Luther King, Jr., Moral Philsopher.” (January 20, 2020). Accessed Oct. 31, 2020. URL https://www.lionsroar.com/the-king-we-need-charles-r-johnson-on-the-legacy-of-dr-martin-luther-king-jr/

I Look Foward to a Dialog on This. Please Comment.

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