The Radical King is the Religious King

In 2011, a 30-foot tall statue of Martin Luther King was added to the many monuments commemorating great figures in American history on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Words spoken or written by King were engraved around his granite likeness. The word love appears four times. The word peace appears five times. The words law, God, Jesus, and soul do not appear at all. Amazingly, the word black does not appear either, and the only mention of race is in the quotation “Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.” The King who is remembered today by countless tourists, schoolchildren, politicians, and at many Martin Luther King Day events annually is a thoroughly secularized, post-racial figure. Offensive to none, all this King wants is to fill the world with love. While it seems as though King might be gesturing toward some higher authority as he recommends transcending race and class, the words selected for his monument replace divine authority with a vague internationalism. In other words, the world is all there is. The most powerful critical resources from King’s writings and speeches have been entirely forgotten — or repressed.

Where are those powerful resources found? I do not think that we should turn to King’s late work to find a more “radical” leader. While such a turn has become fashionable of late, I believe it is actually the early King to whom social justice advocates ought to turn. In King’s early sermons and speeches, he spoke in a decidedly theological idiom, and he spoke from and to the black community. As his career progressed, his public voice became more secular and his audience became whiter — a trend that accelerated after his assassination, culminating in the secularized, post-racial King memorialized in Washington.

The place to look for the truly radical King, I contend, is in his explicitly theological, explicitly black reflections. In the sermons King preached while still a student, in his early speeches in Montgomery, and in writings from the 1950s we find a towering black intellectual irreducible to the sources that influenced him. Yes, King was attracted to personalist theology, to the social gospel tradition, to Buber, to Gandhi, and to many others, but King was more than a skilled synthesizer. Raised in the black Baptist tradition, possessing a powerful intellect, King exemplified the ethical and political engagement typical of black theology at its best. That engagement is not about filling the world with love. It is about discerning God’s law, and it is about holding the powers that be accountable for breaking God’s law.

Where are the prescriptions of God’s law found, according to King? The Bible is only one source among many. He cites not only sacred texts but also “saints and prophets” as well as “the intellectual disciplines of the day.” Yet what King ultimately urges is that we all have the capacity, through reflection on our own human nature, created in the image of God, to discern God’s law. This is a process of ideology critique — or the critique of idolatry. The world tells us we are one thing, but we know deep down we are not that. It is easy to forget: to go along with the ways of the world, to treat ourselves and others according to the customs and laws of the world. King urges us to reverence the image of God in each human being, and that means discerning and condemning violations of human dignity wherever they occur. King is particularly concerned with the grossest of such violations: colonialism, segregation, but also economic inequality. “One tenth of 1 percent of the population of this nation controls more than 50 percent of the wealth,” he intones. “There is something wrong with a system where some people can wallow in wealth and others do not have the basic necessities of life.” These basic necessities of life ought to be provided by society; to deny them is to violate God’s law.

King was a performer. His acclaimed oratory did not just transmit a message, nor did it simply rouse emotions. The greatness of King’s performances was that they are invitations to discern God’s law for ourselves. They used reason and they used emotion, but ultimately they remind listeners that neither reason nor emotion suffices. Our human nature is reducible to neither. But that irreducibility is powerful. That is where we find God, where we find the image of God in the human. King invites us to reflect on how we contain within ourselves something that can never be represented rightly, just as God can never be represented rightly. And King solicits normative conclusions from this observation. The world is constantly trying to say who counts as human and who does not, hubristically attempting to describe the image of God in worldly terms. The dignity of each human being must be defended, and that means organizing against slavery, segregation, incarceration, and other evils. In short, that the content of King’s speeches and sermons opposes segregation is less important than their form: they invite listeners to discern God’s law themselves, and they invite listeners to struggle against unjust worldly laws.

We remember King as an activist, making speeches and leading marches, but in his early years he was first and foremost an organizer. King did not follow the organizing precepts of Saul Alinsky and his disciples. King learned organizing from the black church. The first thing he did when he moved to Montgomery — and he did again when he moved to Ebenezer in Atlanta — was to form committees. These committees not only conducted the work of the church, they built relationships, and so they built power. The Montgomery bus boycott was a massive organizing effort, and King was at its center, not just giving speeches but scheduling meetings, having conversations, making introductions, brainstorming, strategizing, and much else. For King, organizing was the proper response to God’s law. We cannot just criticize unjust worldly laws or norms, we must join together with others to build the power that can change those laws and those norms. Organizing in itself is not enough: it is pragmatic, addressing problems rather than broken systems. Organizing must be motivated by correct discernment of God’s law, which means organizing must be guided by ideology critique, challenging the wisdom of the world.

When politicians talk about God’s law today, it often has a frighteningly authoritarian ring. Politicians seem to be embracing theocracy, or giving divine force to their puritan morality. But King had little patience for moralizing about sexual ethics when there are gross economic and racial injustices facing the nation and the world. When asked questions about personal conduct (as he was regularly when he served as an advice columnist for Ebony) he most often urged introspection, consultation with community, and practical wisdom — he did not appeal to God’s law. King positioned himself in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, and W. E. B. Du Bois who each, in characteristically brilliant form, compared the laws of the world against God’s law in light of the experience of oppression. These black luminaries all affirmed that the weak and marginalized are the best at discerning God’s law; the strong and powerful are the worst.

In our era of mass incarceration, police abuse, microaggression, and other forms of anti-black violence large and small, calling for peace, love, and social harmony is not enough. We need to recover the once vibrant tradition of black theological-political reflection that judged the world against God’s law and catalyzed social movements for justice. Pragmatism is not enough. Enumerating the problems facing black Americans is not enough. Wallowing in the tragic is not enough. Twitter activism is not enough. Black America needs social movement organizing oriented toward justice. For this, we must shed our shallow secularism and multiculturalism and embrace the humbling, transformative power of faith in God’s law.

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This essay draws on Vincent Lloyd’s book Black Natural Law, to be published by Oxford University Press in May 2016. Lloyd co-edits the journal Political Theology and is, from June, Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University.

bird banding, photo by Clare Huang