In honor of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, I’m reblogging this post from last year, lightly edited.
In 2012, I decided to interrupt the regular chronological flow of the Honors seminar readings to jump to the 1950s – 60s and examine selections of King’s thought and work. This was always one of my favorite discussion days and almost everyone encountered King in an entirely new light.
I chose one of his early sermons, one he preached frequently for over 10 years, as the starting point for understanding the basic convictions and commitments underlying his thought and work. “A Knock at Midnight” often surprises students with its forthright declarations of good and evil in society, commitment to absolute truth, and other presumptions they hold about the vocabulary of “progressive” social thought. This is useful as a self-reflective moment, if embraced, to examine why one responds to King the Baptist preacher with surprise, discomfort, or confusion. As Frederick Buechner once said, “The world is always bewildered by its saints” (The Magnificent Defeat). So how do King’s convictions about civil rights and the secular sphere stand in relation to his ethical and religious convictions?
A second reason I enjoy teaching this text is that its form, the sermon, does not cooperate as readily with social-theoretical grids that some academics apply whose priority in the encounter with the text is to ferret out class and race consciousness. Such approaches like to dispose of the messy, real and uncomfortable material, like King’s religious arguments, as so much embroidery that doesn’t impinge on the “important” content, the abstracted “social justice” core. It takes no small chutzpah to dismiss King’s religious self-understanding and vocabulary as nothing more than self-estrangement, “flowers on the chain” that enslave, or as impediments to social progress, yet that is the cognitive dissonance some embrace. Such ideological impositions are more readily exposed when dealing with a cultural and social icon like King. This predisposition to abstract content is one of the limitations of reading every text like it’s a book. Though his sermons are compiled and can be read as essays or other written forms, you are less likely to engage in fundamental distortions of the text if you encounter it in its native form: as an oral text, as a proclamation heard, as a spoken exhortation. Listen to these texts if you want to engage them authentically.
The texts I recommend for a quick but somewhat complete picture of the breadth and depth of King’s thought and work are “A Knock at Midnight,” Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” his final speech, delivered in Memphis at the Sanitation Workers strike (pdf available in the sidebar). Be sure to check out the numerous materials digitally archived by the King Center. You may also want to check out one of the most important contemporary scholars on King, Dr Cornel West of Union Theological.
- Nonviolence is not passive, but requires courage.
- Nonviolence seeks reconciliation, not defeat of an adversary.
- Nonviolent action is directed at eliminating evil, not destroying an evil-doer.
- A willingness to accept suffering for the cause, if necessary, but never to inflict it.
- A rejection of hatred, animosity or violence of the spirit, as well as refusal to commit physical violence.
- Faith that justice will prevail.
He’s a Christian minister. Specifically, a Baptist. He’s also from the Southern United States.
He addresses his “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” to the white, “liberal” and “moderate” Christian clergy, and singles them out for criticism. But they’re on his political and religious “side,” right? Why is he criticizing some of his co-belligerents?
In a recent book on “The Lord’s Prayer,” N.T. Wright recently referred to the phrase “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” as a “manifesto of revolution.” King understands the struggle for civil rights as a duty for the disciple of Jesus. In theological terms, this is because King sees himself, his society, and the world, as living in God’s history, and the future component of that history, the eschatological, is supposed to shape what we do in the present. Further, this living into an eschatological “not-yet” shapes King’s self-understanding of his life and work in prophetic terms. For example, in his final speech, he concludes with an eerily prescient vision of himself as Moses. The “mountaintop” that King says he’s been to is Mount Nebo, a height from which Moses was allowed to see the Promised Land in which his people would one day dwell. The more you unpack such allusions in King’s work, the richer your understanding of his thought will be.
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”
— from Dr King’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Address, 1964
The Civil Rights movement of the twentieth century was by no means ideologically monolithic. In 1964, just before the the passage and approval of the landmark Civil Rights Act, King and Malcolm X met briefly in Washington, DC (this page excerpts King’s autobiography about his recollection of this meeting). One of the key fault lines concerned the moral legitimacy of using violence in the struggle for civil rights. King, in the tradition of Tolstoy and Gandhi, was committed to direct, but non-violent action. Malcolm X publicly referred to King as a “religious Uncle Tom” who was in the pocket of the white man. He thought that King’s message of non-violence amounted to defenselessness in the face of the white man’s violence, and served only the interests of white power. King, obviously, disagreed. (See James H. Cone’s Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare? for an in-depth look at this debate.) So what do you think King means by “unarmed truth” in the quote above, what does “fighting back” look like from King’s perspective, and are there moral criteria one should apply to one’s methods for combating injustice? What would those criteria be?
Another opposition opened up by the quote above appears throughout King’s work: that between “unconditional love” and coercive power. Is love really an effectual force for social change and transformation? Can institutions permeated by racism be reformed by unconditional love? Why does King think so, and what does that look like? Pride (In the Name of Love).
As a minister with a formal seminary education from Crozer Theological and an academic theological PhD at Boston University School of Theology, the images, rhetoric, and theology in the Christian Bible (aka “Old Testament” and “New Testament”) are woven so tightly into his thought that without some familiarity with those images, rhetoric, and theology, your grasp of his words’ meaning and import to his audiences will be desultory, superficial, and at worst, plain wrong.
Example: non-violence = passivity, weakness, cowardice.
“No justice, no peace” the popular slogan goes. Would Dr King agree that? Well, what about justice? How do you get that? Can you have justice without truth, without telling and facing the truth? But do you value truth only if it fits your worldview or social aims–will a lie do just as well? Are truths relative? Is there “your” truth and “my” truth? If one thinks truth is non-absolute, then on what grounds can you demand justice from another since they can simply wave aside your claims about what has and has not happened?
Some linguistic background
King adopts many of the forms and cadences of biblical Hebrew poetry. These poetic forms were refined as musical, specifically within the context of singing in a liturgical setting, hence their suitability for King’s oratory style. Some of the key elements are:
Anadiplosis: Repetition of the final word or phrase in the beginning of the next line. “I have a dream,” “Now is the time.”
- Antithesis: “the x, not the y”
- Synonymous: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”
Chiasm: A B B A
Chiastic structure provides emphasis to two (or more) ideas in a pattern that is easily remembered.
Every valley shall be exalted
And every mountain and hill shall be made low;
And the crooked shall be made straight
And the rough places plain.
The chiasm of this passage is:
A B –A –B
A –A B –B