On Undermining the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Letter to American Evangelical Churches, American Evangelical Leaders, and American Christian Thinkers
Monday, January 15, 2018
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist Pastor, Christian theologian, public intellectual, Civil Rights activist, and a Human Rights advocate, was formally trained respectively in the sphere of American Christian education and American liberal education. King studied Sociology at Morehouse College and graduated in 1948. Further, he graduated from Crozer Theological Seminary, and obtained a Doctoral degree in Systematic Theology at Boston University, in 1955.
Similarly, I am a follower of Jesus Christ, a Christian Pastor, and an Evangelical Christian as the concept applies strictly to my embrace of the cardinal tenets of the Christian faith. I am a product of Southern Baptist Theological education, having obtained three academic degrees respectively from Southern Baptist schools. On the other hand, I am also a product of American secular (liberal) education, having acquired three academic degrees from three different universities.
As I look back on my days at the seminary, I have observed a cultural trend consistently manifested among my seminary professors, Christian thinkers, and Evangelical theologians and leaders as they attempted to engage in Gospel-centered conversations on Christian reconciliation and harmony, racial justice and unity, and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In this letter, I will discuss the various expressions of this cultural trend in Christian (Evangelical) circles and writings.
Foremost, every third Monday of January in the American society, both Christians and non-Christians acknowledge the manifold historic contributions of Dr. King to national conversations surrounding racial equality and justice, segregation, equal and fair employment for all Americans, voting rights for all Americans, and anti-black racism in the American society. For many Americans, both Christians and non-Christians, theists and non-theists, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is/was an American hero and icon of our shared American ideals and values. This Federal Holiday designated in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often brings Americans together to engage actively in serious conversations, at both regional and national level, about the faults of our country and the possibility of national renewal and unity, and collective progress and shalom.
Second, Americans who have identified themselves as freedom fighters in respect to the country’s mistreatment of black and brown people and American imperialism in the world, often find inspiration in the liberating words and activism of King, which compel them to collaborate in human rights issues and work together toward human flourishing and the common good. For example, when discussing and celebrating the legacy of King in American classrooms, both little American boys and girls would raise their hands and say, “My favorite American hero is Dr. King,” or they would exclaim, “When I grow up, I want to be like Dr. King.”
Third, not only the liberative rhetoric and protest of King has changed the American civil and political society, King’s activism has left an indelible mark on the American conscience. In contemporary American society, King’s oeuvre continues to inspire all of us toward radical national change, and revolutionary national progress and unity. In addition, for many Human Rights activists around the world and beyond the American landscape, King is considered as the antithesis of all forces of human oppression, abuse, neocolonialism, and human domination; he is also their symbol of the “Beloved Community” and their icon of human cosmopolitanism, brotherhood, and justice.
Despite of the public recognitions and appreciations, both at the national and international level, across human cultures and ethnicity, and across the racial line, of King’s legacy, there exists a segment in American Christian expression that strategically undermine the value of King’s work and the meaning of his various gifts to the American society toward radical national change and a more just and better American democracy. There are many ways (some) American Evangelical leaders and Christian thinkers strategically and intentionally devalue King’s legacy and work of reconciliation and justice in the American society. Such an Evangelical discontent with King’s ideas and legacy almost occurs in public during the week of King’s Holiday. Please allow me to highlight seven of these important factors:
- Some American Evangelical leaders and Christian thinkers, who appear to be concerned about the necessity of human reconciliation, and the imperative of racial harmony and unity in the church, strategically discuss King’s “heretical beliefs” and his seemingly rejection of the “divinity of Christ,” and his overall denial of “Christian theological orthodoxy.” They write columns, publish essays, and give public lectures and interviews few weeks prior to the celebration of King’s national holiday. As a custom, their expression of discontent, which they categorize as “righteous rage,” with King’s theology occurs the week before or just a few days, or on the day of the Holiday.
- This same group of individuals strategically, both Christian men and women, accuse King of plagiarizing his famous “I have a Dream,” which King delivered in August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and his doctoral dissertation at the Boston University, which he defended in 1955, for a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology, to discount his important ideas and relevant contributions to Christian theology, theological ethics, and theological praxis.
- This same group of Evangelical thinkers and leaders strategically, in their public displeasure with King’s ideas, often mention King’s “secular” mentors, “humanist” circles of influence, and the “liberal” theologians who have influenced his theology and shaped his intellectual life. In taking this approach, they’re alarming Christian churches and pastors, and Evangelical Christians not to trust King’s theology and intellectual actions. They’re also saying to American Evangelicalism that King’s ideas are dangerous to sound Evangelical spirituality and unhealthy to the Christian faith.
- This same group of individuals strategically discuss King’s socialist, Marxist, and communist leanings to separate King’s secular tendencies from Christian theological conservatism or theologically traditional propensities. In applying this method to assess King’s intellectual formation, these individuals are basically asserting that King was not a genuine follower of Jesus and therefore, he should not be regarded as a Christian model for evangelical (Christian) work on social justice issues and Gospel-centered conversations on race relations in our society, in our churches, and Christian circles.
- This same group of individuals strategically analyze King’s critique of the American empire, American-European hegemony in the world, and his anti-war and poverty discourse to indicate that King was not a true American Patriot and did not seek the interests of the American people.
- This same group of individuals strategically discuss King’s marital infidelity toward Coretta Scott King and his multiple love affairs with other women resulting in the birth of a child out of wedlock. In assessing King’s character and marriage, the ensuing indication is that King’s marriage is not a model of the Biblical marriage, and that King is not a model of the Christian husband and Christian father.
- Finally, these Evangelical thinkers and leaders strategically appeal to the rumors of King’s possible involvement in homosexual relations or activities to question his morality and Christian sexual ethics.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was not a saint nor was a man of any moral faults or ethical shortcomings. Evidently, as an individual, he made some mistakes in his human interactions and relationships. Don’t we all? In addition, his theology is not aligned or compatible with the so-called today “American Evangelicalism.” Nonetheless, it is morally wrong and sinful for contemporary American Evangelical thinkers and leaders and churches to discount strategically and intentionally the legacy and contributions of King to American democracy and race relations in the American society during the week of his national celebration. What makes the evangelical attempt erroneous is not because of the relevant timing, but the ideology behind it: (1) to defame King’s character, (2) to undermine his legacy and work, (3) to alienate King from various Christian communities and Evangelical circles, and (4) to refrain from engaging in serious and honest work on the imperative of racial harmony and unity in Christian churches, and correspondingly, (5) to refuse to engage in the necessity of the ministry of Christian hospitality and social justice. For many of my Evangelical brothers and sisters, King should not be regarded as a Christian model.
On the other hand, contemporary American Evangelicalism has yet to produce such a figure of King’s stature, one who has sacrificially given himself up to the realization of American democratic ideals and the improvement of the work of racial justice and unity in American churches. In his short life on earth, King was actively engaged in various kinds of battles and struggles for human freedom and peace toward human flourishing and the common good of all Americans. Contemporary American Evangelicals have many things to learn from King’s radical theology of love, human rights, justice, hospitality, and his theology of peace and care; Reciprocally, King’s revolutionary campaigns against all categories of human-inflicting suffering and pain manifested through the economic exploitation of the poor, poverty, war, violence, racism, ruthless capitalism, and the spiritual decadence and moral decline of our nation are noteworthy lessons we Evangelicals need to learn and emulate. These forms of human oppression and assault challenge the image of God in all of us and especially they dehumanize the poor and the most Vulnerable among us.
For those of us who still thirst for righteousness and justice, and the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., will always be a teacher, mentor, and an inspiration!
Blessings and Peace from Christ,
Rev. Celucien L. Joseph, PhD