Dr. King and Christianity: An Appreciation for Martin Luther King Jr. as Human

January 20, 2015

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I’m still heading in the direction I hinted at in my last post, but in honor of February and Martin Luther King Day I want to take a step back and discuss King and later, race just a bit. I will admit that anytime a white male discusses race perils loom from every angle as opportunities for missteps abound; and it’s up for debate whether those who haven’t lived experiences themselves even have a place in such conversation in the first place.That being said, I’m going ahead to do so at least in two posts. The first is an appreciation of Martin Luther King Jr. directly related to my last post. The second will be a discussion of film in relation to race in 2015 (“Good Films are Good Films–What’s Race [or politics] got to do with It?”).

So here goes. I’ve written about King in the past in honor of the holiday we’ve named after him. I focused then on his passionate embrace of nonviolence, rejection of militarization, and the prophetic voice he gives even now decades after his assassination. The “whitewashing” of King remains a danger in popular culture, especially from conservative pundits. It’s easier to celebrate King in a US holiday for a perceived rosy “we’re all one family there is no race” stance. It’s harder for some to acknowledge his struggle to redress poverty, to decry the violence of rampant unchecked capitalism, his opposition to Vietnam, his staunch active nonviolence. This is the man who preached non-violence but kept a hand-gun in his house before receiving his first death threat. At which point he connected the dots and realized he had to live non-violence on a personal level just as he expected society to do so–so against the advice of his companions in the civil rights struggle, he got rid of it. Who does that? Who decides to give up their previously owned firearm at the very moment where even many who refuse to have one consider acquiring one? Dr. King does that–he lived out a “Christian” example of radicality that quickly illuminates the fact that very few real “Christians” have ever lived. It’s hard for mainstream America to celebrate that King.

In the days of Ferguson and Eric Garner, it’s easy to imagine for any scholar or student of King and his legacy where his voice and mission would lay vis-a-vis such events. The reactions provoked and expressed in recent months have quickly shown that in some ways, we haven’t really made as much progress as we’d hoped in the US in regards to race relations. I’m sure the racism and anger expressed by so much of the media and the average white populations throughout the country in recent months seemed eerily familiar to those who lived through the civil rights movement. It’s easy to admire King posthumously–to say what you would have done, how you would have helped and how you would have viewed the overall milieu of King and his action in its heyday now, divorced from that atmosphere. So many who claim they would have been on board with King have clearly shown by their reactions to Ferguson and the conversation it’s brought to the spotlight that they most certainly would not have been on King’s side or active in the civil rights movement even on a vocal level of support.

I’ve read a lot of books about Martin Luther King Jr. and I’ve read a fair share of his original writings, letters, and sermons. He’s been a hero of mine since I can remember. I truly think that learning about him at an impressionable age formulated my views of race and instilled in me the primal feeling that racism is basically just ignorance–and irrational. I truly spoke up about issues of race when I was fairly young and my big mouth often got me into trouble. There wasn’t a lot of diversity in the schools I grew up in, and I remember the racist jokes on the bus and in the lunchroom. I remember how I reacted to those jokes and statements as well. Unfortunately I fermented my own prejudices in doing so that I can sense in me to this day. My reaction to a “redneck” telling such a joke or story was to make fun of them, call them every name I could think of, and usually get punched–I was pretty small before my growth spurt and it took me several punches and altercations to realize that making fun of someone isn’t the best way to advance your cause. My prejudice that formed in such early experiences was a hatred of “rednecks” and I became quite fond of labeling many people “white trash,” which when you think about such words is a pretty de-humanizing phrase.

Michael Eric Dyson wrote a wonderful book on King, “I May Not Get There With You.” He received a fair share of flack for presenting King warts-and-all and tackling head-on the scandals and less glamorous aspects of Dr. King. What emerges is a completely human man full of faults and frailties–but one who was nevertheless a man who accomplished tremendous things, vowed himself to the highest of causes and selflessly pursued the path of justice. Dyson concludes after mulling over every possible “dark” aspect of King’s character and legacy that nevertheless, King was (and to this day remains) the greatest American to live. He accomplished more for the future and made the world a better place far more so than any US President. He accomplished what he did as a private citizen–he exemplified civic responsibility (even when that responsibility means protest) to the fullest and he lived out a love greater than any one we’ve seen in our country’s history to this point. Recognizing King as a real human being with struggles of his own elevates humanity and showcases the potential we all have. Breaking him free from the shackles of a motionless icon and into a living breathing human is an antidote to the cult of personality and the idleness of hero worship.

My struggle with King now relates to my struggle with faith and religion. Dr. King has always been the example I point to when someone claims religion is the root of evil and destructiveness. Sure there are civil rights advocates outside of organized religion; some  have even been overlooked for their contributions because of their different views (folks like Baynard Rustin). King may have earned a PhD in systematic theology but if that’s all he had done he would be a footnote. He earned his place in history by living out systematic theology. He saw justice as the overall arc of the universe. love as the motivating force, and God intimately concerned in those who populated this earth. He saw his work as being the hands and feet of Christ and he organized with an entire community of faith to bring about great change and progress through radical love. Can such greatness be achieved if it is just rooted in secular humanism? Maybe. Maybe not. I’m going to explore that in upcoming posts but I welcome your thoughts now.

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