Sunday, January 14, 2007

MLK: profound advocator of the social gospel

On a summer afternoon in 1968, a couple of months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Fred Fierst, a classmate at Tufts University and I decided to drive from Boston to D.C. to the Poor People’s Campaign camp-in at “Resurrection City” that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized on the Washington Mall. We drove in Fred’s little Triumph convertible through a pouring rain (the convertible top was broken so I had to hold it down for most of the trip to keep out the rain).

I honestly don’t remember much about the time we spent there. I’m sure I was still numb from Dr. King’s death and the overall dark feeling that was 1968. I do recall tramping through ankle-deep mud past scores of tents and makeshift shelters that lined the city’s national park. Although it was all very surreal -- eerily quiet despite the numbers of people and even a mule or two, it felt like a fitting way to honor the memory of Dr. King. (GW)

A King we hardly knew

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote this: "On the one hand I must attempt to change the soul of individuals so that their societies may be changed. On the other, I must attempt to change the societies so that the individual soul will have a change. Therefore, I must be concerned about unemployment, slums and economic insecurity. I am a profound advocator of the social gospel."

King also wrote this: "One of the great weaknesses of liberal theology is that it becomes so involved in higher criticism, in many instances that it fails to answer certain questions. . . . the weakness lies in its failure to connect the masses. Liberal theology seems to be lost in a vocabulary. Moreover, it seems too divorced from life."

It is not amazing that King wrote of concern for the poor yet criticized liberals who voiced only lip service. What is stunning is that he wrote the above in 1948. He wrote them in seminary school before the age of 20.

"Most people see King's life as starting in 1955," said Clayborne Carson, founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, home of the massive King Papers Project. "That's what's really new about these writings. People don't really understand the roots of King, particularly the religious roots. This is a King we hardly knew."

The passages are drawn from the soon-to-be published sixth volume ofthe King Papers. The volume is drawn from handwritten notes and writings found, as Carson put it, "rotting" in the King family basement in Atlanta in 1997. The writings were previously unknown to scholars because they were in boxes mixed in with family papers, Coretta Scott King's personal letters, and even Christmas cards.

"What makes these things so wonderful," Carson said last week to the Trotter Group of African American newspaper columnists, is that "you never get too many of these moments as a scholar where you pick up a document and you know the last person to touch that document was Martin Luther King."

What makes them even more fascinating is that the notes show a King who "did not come easily to his faith," Carson said. "There were lots of doubts, questions along the way. You see him struggle all the way through. He's still a teenager, struggling."

King struggled simultaneously toward the certitude of his cause while placing worth in causes he did not agree with. While calling communism and Christianity incompatible in a 1953 sermon, he also wrote that communism "contains many essential truths that must forever challenge us as Christians . . . we must admit that it arose as a protest against the hardships of the underprivileged . . . Communism emphasizes a classless society. Along with this goes a strong attempt to eliminate racial prejudice."

It is unclear as to how much of his thinking was truly original. His notes and essays are heavily footnoted. It is well known that he was exposed to a long line of religious thinkers and philosophers. There is no debate as to how provocative he was. Carson stopped to ask out loud what would have happened had J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI chief who was dedicated to destroying the civil rights movement, gotten hold of that.

That writing echoed a letter he wrote the year before to Coretta in which he said that one thing he learned from reading Marx and Edward Bellamy's 1888 book "Looking Backward" was "religion can so easily become a tool of the middle class to keep the proletariat oppressed."

Perhaps most striking about the very early King was the degree to which he was willing to take on his kindred spirits in liberal theology, even though he said it is "the best, or at least the most logical system of theology in existence."

In a two-part 1948 essay at Crozer Seminary called "The Weakness of Liberal Theology," King wrote, "After the Bible has been stripped of all of its mythological and nonhistorical content, the liberal theologian must be able to answer the question -- 'what then?' It is certainly justifiable to be as scientific as possible in proving that . . . the whale did not swallow Jonah, that Jesus was not born a virgin or that Jesus never met John the Baptist.

"But after all this, what relevance do these scriptures have? What moral implications do we find growing out of the Bible? What relevance does Jesus have in 1948 AD?"

King said these were questions "which the liberal theologian must of necessity answer if he expects to influence the average mind."

Because of those questions, we know how relevant King became by 1955. He became a person who influenced the average mind.


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