Today we commemorate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK was a great hero, and for many reasons. He was an inspiring preacher, an effective social activist, a national healer and reconciler, a critical prophet, and ultimately a martyr. However, I want to mention an additional aspect of his legacy that is too often forgotten or ignored: Martin Luther King as Christian theologian. The claim I want to make today is that MLK models at least part of what it means to be a Christian theologian.
It is uncontroversial to assert that MLK was a Christian pastor and preacher, and so drew on biblical themes and traditional Christian language to make his great public appeals for civil rights. But people both within and without the church don’t always take him serious as a Christian thinker, with whose ideas we must reckon. In fact, all our talk of MLK as inspiring preacher, activist, and martyr often functions to domesticate and tame him, to turn him into a hero whom we emulate and imitate, but do not really heed. But Dr. King challenges the way we think and speak the gospel. This challenge is a theological challenge, and not merely an ethical or pragmatic one. It concerns the very meaning of the gospel message!
What was that challenge? Well, there’s much that could be said. But let me mention two brief things that I learned from Dr. King about the practice of Christian theology. The first is that the gospel cannot be relegated to the private sphere. The privatizing of the gospel is a central phenomenon of modern culture, perceived as necessity both for the safety of democracy and for the survival of the church. Politics doesn’t belong in church. Christianity concerns the soul. Politics and religion don’t mix. Americans both within and without the church repeat these mantras, although we apply these rules selectively in order to block the politics and/or religions that we don’t like.
The work of MLK, both in deed and in word, challenges these assumptions. Our safe distinctions between public and private do not stand in the face of gross injustice. The Christian gospel does speak to the concrete realities of our time, not only in our private “spiritual” lives but in the public “political” realm. To say that Christianity only concerns the soul is to give our bodies over to the state — which is not so bad for those who are running the state, but a disastrous reduction of the gospel for those who are under the thumb of state and society. I learned these lessons in a palpable way from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which appealed explicitly to the Christian doctrine of natural law in defense of civil disobedience. For King, the Christian gospel spoke directly to the sociopolitical realm. And so to heed his voice today requires that we let go of our safe reduction of the gospel to the private sphere.
The second lesson I learned from MLK is that theology emerges out of the practices of the people of God. When MLK penned the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he was not composing a treatise on the justifiability of civil disobedience. That is not to say it is not an erudite defense; after all, MLK did receive a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University. But what makes the Letter a classic is that it articulates the reasons and aims of actual social practices. To me, that is what theology is all about.
The theologian’s task — and it is a task laid upon all church leaders — is to articulate why Christians do what they do. The whole Christian community is called to minister. The ordained minister is called to articulate, both to the church and to the world, the meaning and significance of this common ministry. And if the first thing I learned from Dr. King is right, then the ministry of the Christian community includes not only so-called cure of souls but also speaking and acting prophetically in the sociopolitical sphere. Christian theologians should articulate the reasons not only for prayer, preaching, small groups, baptisms, etc., but also for giving, voting, debating, marching, etc. Since theology emerges out of the practices of the people of God, theologians of all kinds must participate in these activities, just like Dr. King did. But then again, since theology emerges out of the practices of the people of God, theology starves if these practices are themselves not taking place. So heeding this second lesson (which concerns the nature of theological work) depends on heeding the first lesson (which concerns the nature of the gospel itself). It is my prayer that as we commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. day, we would not only remember and celebrate his great actions, but also heed his theological challenge.