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Martin Luther King Jr.: Cultural Hero and Theologian

Martin Luther King Jr., is a cultural hero, and deservedly so.

His role in the long and arduous drama of the civil rights struggle is recognized and celebrated around the country and internationally.

He is noted and quoted even by the political heirs of those who treated him with contempt during and after his lifetime.

The Montgomery bus boycott, the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and the “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial are well-remembered landmarks of that era, memorialized in museums and school curricula, as they should be.

The acts and sacrifices of courageous leaders tend to shine so brightly that less attention is sometimes given to the depth of the roots that nourish such contributions.

Our annual reflection on King’s significance invites us to consider these roots and their relevance.

Ferrell Foster’s column in 2016 pointed helpfully to King’s heritage in the prophetic tradition of his church and how the insights from that heritage were helpful then and can be now.

Few would question the application of the term “prophetic” to his life and voice.

In the nearly 50 years since an assassin’s bullet stopped King’s active work as a “drum major for justice,” there have been discussions about his role as a “theologian” of the era.

He had the formal credentials – a doctorate in theology from Boston University, where his dissertation compared the concepts of God in the thought of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.

He identified other formative influences in his “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” as the Social Gospel’s Walter Rauschenbusch, the “engagement theology” of Reinhold Niebuhr and the “soul-force” activism of Gandhi.

His vocational trajectory was poised to follow the pattern of his tradition in pastoral ministry.

The discussions, pro and con, over whether he was a “theologian” had less to do with him and more to do with a shift that was developing in the understanding of theology itself at the time.

During and shortly following his active career as a leader of the civil rights movement, “focused” theological work began to appear under the labels “political theology,” “liberation theology,” “black theology” and “feminist theology.”

Each of these perspectives calls for faith’s engagement on behalf of parts of the human family whose concrete circumstances had gone largely unattended by the mainstream doctrinal and theoretical theologies of the time.

While King did not fit the more formal and academically oriented images of “theologian” that were operative in the minds of some, he was part of this emerging “theology of concrete engagement.”

He brought together in a significant way his rootage in the traditional theology of his academic preparation and the pressing needs of the context of racial oppression.

Theology was changing from primarily reflection and interpretation to engagement and application, and King was one of the standard bearers of the change.

One hears in the background the words of Isaiah and Jesus – “good news to the poor, liberation of the captives” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18).

This dual stewardship of his orientation in classical theology and his passion for the liberation of the victims of racial segregation gave him a level of theological discernment that took him a step beyond the early emphases of other “liberation theologies.”

King deeply believed two things:

1. Every form of oppression has two sets of victims: the oppressed and the oppressors. Both are in need of liberation from a system that cripples them both.

2. Liberation without reconciliation simply shifted the balance of power from one side of a division to the other. Liberated victims of oppression can and do easily become oppressors themselves.

His concern both for the black victims of segregation’s injustice and for the white perpetrators and tolerators of that injustice led him to a “theology of reconciliation” that pointed to not just a restoration of an imbalance but to the creation of community, where the descendants of “slaves and slave owners could sit down at the table of brotherhood.”

If we listen carefully, we can also hear in the background that other phrase that Luke adds to Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah: “recovery of sight to the blind.” There is evidence that we are continuing to struggle with that recovery.

Theologians honor themselves and the profession by claiming King as one of their own.

He was an early participant in the shaping of a focus for theology that we are now seeing move from theoretical and often culture-bound interpretation to global embrace and application.

Like many founding and transitional figures in any tradition, he is one from whom the tradition can continue to learn.

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.