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MLK’s Often-Ignored Religion

It is commonly asserted that religion should never come up in public discourse. Tell that to Martin Luther King Jr. Not only was the civil rights leader a Protestant minister, his theology of civil rights was openly driven by Judeo-Christian principles.

Take for instance King’s Letter from a Birmingham jail. This fascinating letter contains 15 direct references to God and numerous quotes from Scripture and mention of biblical figures and notable Christians. Look at this sampling (I’ve highlighted the biblical references and imagery for perusal):

A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law…

…segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?

If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks, before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman empire…

Was not Jesus an extremist for love — “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice — “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ“I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist — “Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God.” Was not John Bunyan an extremist — “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.”

…In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill, three men were crucified. We must not forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thusly fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment.

There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.

We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands…

I am not here to debate Martin Luther King’s Christianity, as some have. What is without question is that King asserted a distinctly Judeo-Christian worldview, and was vocal about it. Yet nowadays, people have scrubbed Reverend King of the beliefs which so informed his civil rights efforts.

The same people who claim to share Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision, often seem to ignore — if not openly deny — the religious principles which motivated him. They bark about a separation of Church and state, or the intrusion of faith into politics, while hailing King’s efforts. They demand equality for all, while protesting public prayer, Bible reading, and Christianity in the marketplace. If Reverend King were politically active today, he could probably be charged with mixing religion and politics.

Perhaps one of the ways we can honor the vision and sacrifice of Martin Luther King Jr. is to invite the church back into the state, religion back into politics, and God back into the debate about civil rights. Would to God that, as King wrote, “the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; [but] was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Jason January 18, 2010, 8:06 PM

    Thanks for sharing this Mike. This is the history we don't learn about in school or popular media.

  • Meg Moseley January 19, 2010, 3:51 AM

    Good post, Mike. If you've never read Philip Yancey's book, "Soul Survivor," pick it up just to read the chapter that's devoted to MLK.

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