Misreading Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Many evangelicals struggle reading non-evangelical theologians. The work of Martin Luther King, Jr. is a classic example. I’ve heard evangelicals communicate ideas about King from an unpleasant posture. Yet many of them had either misread King’s work or never read his work at all. So then, how should we read King (or any other theologian)?

As Christians, we have an ethical obligation to represent people and their work truthfully, whether we agree with their conclusions or not.

Read King in light of his historical and socio-cultural context.

My history professor once expressed disdain toward theologians who ignored historical and socio-cultural contexts. Nothing happens ‘in a vacuum,’ he explained, and history often tells us ‘why’ and ‘how’ theological ideas developed. For example, Kirk R. Macgregor argues that “World War 1 itself caused a crisis in Barth’s theology.”[1] He posits that the willingness to “engage culture rather than separate from it as the fundamentalists” contributed to the birth of evangelicalism.[2] The Danvers Statement admits that the perceived “widespread uncertainty and confusion in our culture regarding the complementary differences between masculinity and femininity” led to the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.[3] Likewise, understanding King requires an honest assessment of the socio-cultural factors—Jim Crow, lynch mob impunity, the Cold War, etc.—that shaped his theology and context.

Read King, truthfully.

Before reading any theologian, it’s helpful to consider our own biases and presuppositions towards them and what we think he or she represented. We can do this  by asking:

  • What have I heard about ‘X’ that I have never confirmed as true?
  • Have I ever made an unbiased and sincere effort to understand his or her work?
  • Have I only learned things about ‘X’ from people (in my tribe) who dislike him/her?

To read King, truthfully, is to acknowledge that we may already have certain biases or presuppositions, whether positive or negative, about him and his work. Furthermore, we should also ask ourselves questions as we are reading like:

  • Am I looking for specific ideas and buzzwords that support my presuppositions and biases?
  • Am I making King say something he is not really saying? If so, why?

Reading King, truthfully, can be difficult since much of his ethical, theological, and philosophical ideas were revealed unsystematically through sermons and speeches. Thankfully, the work of scholars and pastors like Rufus Burrow, Jr., Mika Edmondson, Keith D. Miller, and others have made King’s theology very accessible.

Truthfully, read King.

A (non-SEBTS) professor once critiqued my classmate’s sermon because it appealed to ideas espoused by King. While stumbling over his words, it became obvious my professor was unfamiliar with King’s work. Similarly, a friend once expressed great apprehension towards King. After I asked which aspects of King’s theology he disagreed with, he too stumbled over his words and gave no concrete answer. So, I asked, “Have you ever listened to any of his sermons or read anything King’s written?” Embarrassed, he softly said, “No.”

My professor and my friend made definitive statements about a person’s work they’d never read. As Christians, we have an ethical obligation to represent people and their work truthfully, whether we agree with their conclusions or not.[4] After all, don’t we want our ideas to be represented truthfully?[5] To truthfully read King, is to ask:

  • Have I actually taken time to read King’s work, or have I relied on soundbites (from people or social media)?
  • Have I understood King’s ideas enough to agree or disagree with them?
  • Am I engaging in slander or libel in my discussion of King?

It’s one thing if a person’s work, words, or actions are intentionally negative and divisive; however, if my retelling of a person’s life or work contains unwarranted claims and divisive language, then I have engaged I slander and violated the Christian ethic.[6]

Read King as one who was on a theological journey.

I’ve encountered people who were raised with certain beliefs, but as they journeyed through life, their beliefs changed (for better or worse). King was no different. King grew up in a traditional Fundamentalist church. However, as a preteen, Fundamentalism failed to satisfy his intellectual curiosity, and he began to battle doubts about the Christian faith. Intellectually gifted and still battling doubts, King enrolled in Morehouse College at the age of 15. He was soon introduced to Biblical Criticism which increased his religious doubts. However, during his junior year, he took a Bible class taught by George D. Kelsey and emerged from the class assured of his faith.

After college, King applied to Crozer Theological Seminary, one of the few institutions that accepted African American students. Although his early coursework was steeped in Theological Liberalism, he found certain doctrines and teachings problematic. He explained, “It was mainly the liberal doctrine of man that I began to question. The more I observed the tragedies of history and man’s shameful inclination to choose the low road, the more I came to see the depths and strength of sin.”[7]

Although King later used Neo-Orthodoxy to critique Liberalism, he never fully embraced it. He said, “In spite of the fact that I had to reject some aspects of liberalism, I never came to an all-out acceptance of neoorthodoxy. While I saw neo-orthodoxy as a helpful corrective for a liberalism that had become all too sentimental, I never felt that it provided an adequate answer to the basic questions.” [8]

Many evangelicals fail to realize King was on a theological journey and only emphasize theologically liberal ideas he espoused during his M.Div. However, King’s writings included affirmations and critiques of Fundamentalism, Theological Liberalism, Neo-Orthodoxy, Existential Philosophy, and Christian Realism. Since no single theological system in his context proved capable of eradicating  racism and segregation, as he journeyed through life he adopted ideas from each system in hopes of achieving the Beloved Community and bringing justice, freedom, and dignity to African Americans. King’s life ended tragically at the age of 39 when he was assassinated in Memphis while working on the Sanitation Worker’s Strike. Where King’s theological journey would have taken him remains a mystery.

While we truthfully, read King (or any other theologian), let’s be sure to read their work self-critically, in context, and with the grace and understanding that we too are on a theological journey.

[1] Kirk R. Macgregor, Contemporary Theology: An Introduction, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 121.
[2] Ibid., 160
[3] The Danvers Statement, https://cbmw.org/about/danvers-statement, accessed January 12th, 2022.
[4] Proverbs 14:5
[5] Luke 6:31
[6] Proverbs 26:28
[7] Martin Luther King, Jr., Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume 4: Symbol of the Movement, January 1957-December 1958, ed. Clayborne Carson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
[8] Ibid.

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Aaron Ducksworth

Aaron Ducksworth is a Hattiesburg, Mississippi native and earned a B.S. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Mississippi State University. After his M.Div., he completed a ThM in Theology and is currently working on a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics at Southeastern. He and his wife, Sherelle, live in Wake Forest, North Carolina and are members of Christ Our King Community Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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