Monday, January 17, 2011

The Irrelevant Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr.

So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, 'If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free... So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed' (John 8:31-32, 36).

It is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is a conflicting day. While we can be sincerely grateful for the socio-political achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, it cannot be overlooked that its methods and essential vision leaves a deadly-wake.

It is especially concerning when professing Christians do jumping-jacks over the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. like this. Why? I am convinced that his message misplaces the source of true hope and is, therefore, irrelevant.

First, what I do not mean... I do not mean to say that the injustice and racism that civil rights leaders osought to address was not what it was (and is). Segregation, Jim Crow laws, and the like, are wicked manifestations of an evil and depraved society. It was and is right to condemn them and seek their rectification. To the extent that professing Christians opposed this protest of America's legal and cultural infrastructure, they are rightly condemned for their ignorance of God's Word and shameful refusal to act publicly in accord with it. (For more on this point, see Russell Moore, "Racial Justice and the Godness of God").

So, why is the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. largely irrelevant? It equates the hope of God in the Kingdom of His Son with the hope of better things in this life. And in a cursed world of fallen men, that is trading the glories of God's promises to the Redeemed for an uncertain wish that is certain to disappoint.

Take, for example, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," delivered on April 3, 1968, the eve before Dr. King brutally fell victim to the hatred he had so long opposed.
We need all of you. And you know what's beautiful to me, is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It's a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and say, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Somehow, the preacher must say with Jesus, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor."

And I want to commend the preachers... I want to thank them all. And I want you to thank them, because so often, preachers aren't concerned about anything but themselves. And I'm always happy to see a relevant ministry.

It's all right to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's all right to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.
Many people find depths of hope in these words... I am concerned it is hope woefully misplaced. Note the subtle exchanges made by Dr. King:
  • From minister of the Gospel to messenger of the populace. "Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher?" What happens when preachers of the Gospel find their role in speaking on behalf of the people and their message in the desires of men? Jesus' Gospel is silenced and the real freedom of the Son is unheard.
  • From the real to the symbolic. "It's all right to talk about 'long white robes over yonder,' in all of its symbolism." A reference to "symbolism" is a nod to denying the tangibility of God's promises of the future Kingdom of His Son. What happens when the promises of God's Word are exchanged for malleable symbols? God's Word loses all meaning and its visions of victory to make Christians courageous are erased.
  • From the eternal to the temporal. "It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta..." What happens when certain hope in the unsurpassed and unfading glory of Christ is exchanged for the wish that things might get better in our cities? Hope dies. Period.
Despite Dr. King's insistence that these exchanges make for "a relevant ministry," I am constrained to respectfully disagree. A vision of men creating a virtuous society is not Gospel, it is the hope of an atheist. And in God's world atheistic hopes are always a bad bet.

And the tragic irony is that hope in the future grace and glory of Jesus is the only real basis for hard labors of love in a world of hatred. By removing the future hope of God in bringing sinners to Himself in Jesus, Dr. King essentially removed the foundation for the work to which he called people.

Let's remember and celebrate the accomplishments of Dr. King and God's gracious kindness to our nation. But I especially plead with Christians and churches to not confuse MLK Day with the real hope and relevant ministry still greatly needed in our nation. We must still pray for freedom to come to every "race" of American, that men and women of every skin-color might know the hope of the only true freedom in the glory of their Creator, the Lord Jesus Christ. In cities inhabited by hopeless men it is the only relevant ministry to pursue. What greater sorrow can befall anyone than to be shut-away from Christ Himself? He alone is relevant.


  1. I love it Steve. Although, I appreciate some of what Dr. King did for civil right's it's like you said..."It equates the hope of God in the Kingdom of His Son with the hope of better things in this life" These things are not equal...I'm so much more interested in what will happen in glory vs. here on earth. This is what makes being on earth so exciting after all, because we have heaven following this life. I'm also so glad that I'm not the only one who disagrees with Dr. King. He was just a man after all. Not a god, like so many Black Americans try and make him!!! His speech had poignant parts but there were quite a few holes in that speech. Not to mention his life!!! This is Sharon Sheffield from church by the way.

  2. Agreed, Sharon, thanks for the comment. We can certainly celebrate what God graciously accomplished through Dr. King's efforts (and that of many, many others), while cautioning against the false idol(s) that lay buried in much of it. Blessings.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary.

    I count MLK an American giant. His cause of advancing liberty was an amazing accomplishment with few parallels in American history.

    A politican with few equals and an utter failure as a pastor. A life filled with wood, hay and stubble.

    Etchings in the Lamb's book of life are far more impressive than monuments on the National Mall.

  4. It's unfortunate that (pastor) King doesn't reflect Our Lord and Savior very well. However, Russell said it best, he does reflect a politician to the tee, and a pretty good one. I would also add, a humanist.