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MLK: Minister of the Gospel

Images and reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr., are of course flooding our social media feeds today. While I’m grateful to see him referred to often as Doctor King, I am dismayed by how many stories omit the Reverend part.

King was an ordained minister of the Christian Gospel. This was not somehow incidental or accidental to his world-changing activism; what he did and inspired is rooted in the socially transformative power of the Gospel itself.

Thirty-three years into a life of ordained ministry, and I’m still trying hard to learn the lessons King can teach about what a friend of mine years ago called “spiritual activism.” After serving as a full-time parish priest for my first three years out of seminary, I decided to go back to school for doctoral work. I did this because I realized even more profoundly in my pastoral work that theology matters. How we interpret the world and view ourselves in it—which is one way to understand what theology is all about—makes a significant difference in how we live in the world and the kinds of communities we create.

That conviction eventually led me to study some of the key figures in the emergence of American pragmatism, a distinctly American approach to philosophy that stresses the practical consequences of our ideas. The meaning of an idea or concept, in other words, is defined by the way it shapes our behaviors. I appreciate this approach to theology because it embraces the importance of both ideas and action; one without the other is sorely inadequate even for just daily life let alone for the living of Christian faith.

Josiah Royce (1855-1916)

Among those key American figures was philosopher of religion Josiah Royce, who was convinced that the character of the whole universe is social and communal. For Royce this meant that evil most often takes the form of separation, fragmentation, and isolation, which then calls for the healing work of atonement, of re-uniting what has been torn apart. That healing work, Royce argued, is directed toward what he called “The Beloved Community.”

I was delighted to discover during my studies that Martin Luther King, Jr., also did doctoral work after seminary and that Josiah Royce had a profound influence on how King envisioned the trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. In short, Royce’s notion of the Beloved Community convinced King of the vital importance of bringing everyone to the table of healing, reconciliation, and justice.

That foundation later energized King to address even more directly the corrupting effects of militarism on the Western world (most notably at the time, the Viet Nam War) and the debilitating patterns of a global capitalism that consigned vast segments of the world’s population to permanent poverty.

In today’s world of entrenched animosity and hatred, I am reminding myself almost daily of King’s insistence that hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. Christian love, he argued, “makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it’s directed toward both…seeking to preserve and create community. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.” I am astonished by that inclusive posture, which continually prods me beyond my own petty resentments.

King also practiced what he preached by building a community of organizers, preachers, artists, and musicians to collaborate on the strategies and postures of the Civil Rights Movement. This is often overlooked by (white male) commentators who apparently imagine King as single-handedly steering that movement as if he were a solitary captain at the ship’s wheel.

Just one among many counter-examples is the great Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who not only performed at many of the marches and rallies in the 1960s, not only advised King and others on strategy, but actually prompted King to “talk about the dream” during his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963.

Royce described the galvanizing power of what he called the “Spirit” of the Beloved Community, a spirit that so clearly infused Martin Luther King, Jr., and equipped his many companions for the work of social transformation, the work of peace with justice, the work of deep healing and reconciliation.

And that is the work of Christian ministry.

Mahalia Jackson, March on Washington (1963)