Monday, January 21, 2008

Would there have been a King without Jesus?

[This is the text of a splendid speech given by Jeremy Green, a Denver Seminary graduate (MA, Philosophy), concerning the Christian ethics of Martin Luther King. Mr. Green is now completing an MA from Western Michigan University, and is a very promising young philosopher.]

Would there have been a King without Jesus?

Jeremy Green

We are here today to talk about the relationship between religion and activism in the United States. There are those on the contemporary scene who think that, at best, religion ought to be relegated to the private sector, or just done away with entirely. At least, it is hard to come away with any other conclusion when Christopher Hitchens writes his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Routlege, 2007). In addition, Daniel Dennett remarks:

I think that there are no forces on this planet more dangerous to us all than the fanaticisms of fundamentalism, of all the species: Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, as well as countless smaller infections. (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 1995, 515)


The message is clear: those who will not accommodate, who will not temper, who insist on keeping only the purest and wildest strain of their heritage alive, we will be obliged, reluctantly, to cage or disarm, and we will do our best to disable the memes they fight for. (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 1995, 515)

However, we have gathered here to celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is no secret that he was a Christian; after all, he was the Reverend Dr. King. We all think that he is worth celebrating—he figures as one of the most important persons in all of American History because of his struggle for justice. In light of the ideas of Hitchens and Dennett, perhaps we should think that the good that King worked was independent of his religious worldview, especially when we consider all of the atrocities that have been perpetrated in the name of religion generally and Christianity specifically. Despite the allure of such a position to some, I do not think it fits with the evidence. On the contrary, I will argue that there could never have been a King without there first being a Jesus. I will show that both the motivation for and method of King’s civil rights activism was essentially rooted to Christianity.


King said, “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method.” I will deal with each of these in turn, beginning with King’s motivation for his civil rights struggle. For the movement to gain traction there had to be a recognition that the status quo was essentially unjust. The relationship between Whites and Blacks in North America, for most of our history, was based on Blacks being inferior to Whites essentially. What do I mean by essentially? Whites did not consider themselves superior to Blacks merely because of their ability to conquer and enslave Africans. Rather, it seems as though there existed this notion that there was something in the essence of what it meant to be white, something that made the white person inherently better than one from another race. It would then follow that the black person was inherently inferior to the white person. King said, “They came to feel that perhaps they were less than human. The great tragedy of physical slavery was that it led to mental slavery.” The generations of black men and women brought up in this worldview would require a significant change in their conceptual resources if the injustice was to be recognized.

The conceptual change came when Christianity “revealed…that God loves all of His children, and that every man, from a bass black to a treble white, is significant on God’s keyboard.” This significance stems from the Judeo-Christian idea that human beings were created in the image of God, and this entails two further ideas: (1) humans possess an incommensurable dignity granted to them by God that cannot be taken away, and (2) all humans are essentially equal; there is no logical space to argue for the superiority of a race based on inherent properties. Coming to recognize these claims as true would necessarily mean that the status quo was unjust.

Despite recognition of an unjust status quo, there must be the motivation to engage the powers that be in order to bring about a just peace. King was convinced that God desired justice, and invoked the prophet Amos’ words against injustice when he declared, “Let judgment run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He said:

This belief that God is on the side of truth and justice comes down to us from the long tradition of our Christian faith. There is something at the very center of our faith which reminds us that Good Friday may reign for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the Easter drums. Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but one day that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. So in Montgomery we can walk and never get weary, because we know that there will be a great camp meeting in the promised land of freedom and justice.

Clearly, King saw his work not only as merely grounded in Christianity, but as an extension of the work of Christ.

Third, beyond having the conceptual resources to recognize injustice and the will to engage that injustice, King desired an outcome motivated by Christianity. All too often in the world history, the pattern has been that the oppressed rise up violently to overthrow the powerful elite. The result is just a change of oppressors due to the abiding resentment of one group for the other. The Good News of Christianity is that humans and God can be reconciled to one another. The Christian worldview paints a picture of rebellious humans locked in conflict with God. However, in his letter to the Roman church, St. Paul says, “[W]hile we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son,” and further, “[W]e will boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have received reconciliation” (Rom 5:10-11). Instead of the destruction that God could have brought on humans, He chose to expose our evil through the cross of Christ, overcome it by the resurrection, and bring reconciliation through his grace. King desired that the outcome of his struggle be that whites and blacks were reconciled to each other. The sit-ins, boycotts, incarcerations, etc., were all inspired by the cross: just as the cross exposed the depth of evil in the human heart such that humanity was willing to murder the Son of God, King’s goal was to expose the injustices of the system by voluntarily suffering those injustices. King wanted to awaken a sense of shame in the white person, not for revenge, but that the white person might turn away from evil and pursue a life of peace and justice hand-in-hand with the black person.


Given the desired outcome of his struggle for justice, King saw only one legitimate method of struggle—nonviolent resistance. As I have already pointed out, King attributed his strategy to Gandhi. If Gandhi provided the strategy, then how can I make the claim that King’s method was explicitly Christian? Gandhi learned a great deal about nonviolent resistance from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In fact, the Sermon on the Mount provides the full complement of resources to engage in nonviolent resistance. Therefore, if Gandhi’s method was essentially Christian, and King’s method was Gandhian, then King’s method was essentially Christian.

King’s method had to be sold to the black community. Several key distinctions had to be made, and several issues needed clarification. Primarily, King had to get across the notion that there is a crucial distinction between passivity and nonviolent resistance. Passivity allows the injustice to go on unchecked while nonviolent resistance actually resists. We must turn to the Sermon on the Mount for details. Many of us are familiar with the expressions “Turn the other cheek” and “Go the extra mile,” but we may not all be aware that those expressions are from the Sermon on the Mount. Further, I am sure that many us are unaware of the meanings of these expressions in their historical context. Take “Turn the other cheek.” The actual passage reads, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Mt 5:39). If you are right handed, the only way to strike someone facing you on the right cheek is to backhand that person. In context, backhanding was the way one would strike a slave. Punching someone on the left cheek meant that, while you did not like the person, you at least thought enough of him to count him as an equal. So what Jesus is saying in the passage is that if someone slaps you like a slave, give them your left cheek and make them hit you like an equal—allow yourself to be struck, but do not allow yourself to be demeaned.

As for “Go the extra mile,” Jesus was preaching to Jewish nationals living under Roman oppression. The Jews hated the Romans, and they were waiting for a militant messiah to come and throw off Roman rule. One particularly annoying practice the Romans had was coercing Jews to carry their gear for them during marches. There was a restriction though: A Roman soldier could only coerce a Jew to go one mile. Some claim that every Jew knew exactly how many footsteps were in a mile. You can imagine the Jew throwing off the gear at the end of the mile, glaring at the soldier, the soldier sneering back, both reinforcing the animosity and injustice. Jesus encouraged the Jews to keep going. Coercing a Jew to go more than a mile was a punishable offense. Can you imagine the foot soldiers embarrassment when being forced to explain his actions to the commanding officer—“I tried to get him to stop, but he just kept walking!” “You mean to tell me that he wanted to carry your stuff? Yeah, right.” Jesus gave the community a practical strategy to undermine the injustices that were being perpetrated against them in a way that did not use or result in violence.

We have seen two examples of nonviolent resistance given in the Sermon on the Mount. The important thing to recognize is not necessarily the lack of violence, but rather the resister willfully suffering in order to reconcile. Embracing this view, King said:

Whenever you take a stand for truth and justice, you are liable to scorn. Often you will be called an impractical idealist or a dangerous radical. Sometimes it might mean going to jail. If such is the case you must honorably grace the jail with your presence. It might even mean physical death. But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children from a permanent life of psychological death, then nothing could be more Christian.


The upshot is that the strategy of nonviolent resistance was not some uncritical idealist method, but rather a calculated way of winning over the enemy through redemptive suffering. As King said, nothing could be more Christian. I have also argued that the motivation for King’s struggle was a result of the conceptual resources provided by the Christian worldview. His religion was not incidental to his ethics, rather, his ethics were completely determined by his religion—a religion ultimately concerned with love, justice, and peace. Given this conclusion, Hitchens’s point that religion poisons everything hardly follows. Neither does Dennett’s claim that religion is an infection, and those that practice one religion or another ought to be disarmed and caged. On the contrary, without religion generally and Christianity specifically, the world would be without some of its greatest moral accomplishments. We would at least be without Martin Luther King, and that would be a shame.

1 comment:

BJS said...

Excellent work Jeremy -- as always.