MLK Preaching.jpg

"Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away and new systems of justice and equality are being born. In a real sense ours is a great time in which to be alive. Therefore I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that we face a world crisis which often leaves us standing amid the surging murmur of life’s restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. Each can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark, confused world the spirit of God may yet reign supreme." [1]

This quotation comes from an article written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for an ongoing series in Christian Century on the theme: "How My Mind Has Changed." In it, King chronicle his intellectual and spiritual development, revealing the third way he sought between the fundamentalism he grew up with and the liberalism he adopted early in his adult years; a third way that synthesized theological systems and was contextualized to his experience and circumstances in the American South of the 1950s and 60s. 

Having been raised in a strict fundamentalism tradition, King found the allure of liberalism, with its "devotion to the search for truth, its insistence on an open and analytical mind, its refusal to abandon the best light of reason," intellectually satisfying. Through his early life and time at seminary, King uncritically accepted the teachings of Protestant Liberalism with its gospel of love working through reason. However, the more King examined the Scriptures, the world around him, and began to engage the social issues of his day, he quickly found theological liberalism wanting:

It was mainly the liberal doctrine of man that I began to question. The more I observed the tragedies of history and man’s shameful inclination to choose the low road, the more I came to see the depths and strength of sin...[I became] aware of the complexity of human motives and the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence. Moreover, I came to recognize the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil. I came to feel that liberalism had been all too sentimental concerning human nature and that it leaned toward a false idealism. I also came to see that liberalism’s superficial optimism concerning human nature caused it to overlook the fact that reason is darkened by sin.

Much of this came to light through King's study of Reinhold Niebuhr and the neo-orthodox movement. Neo-orthodoxy presented a sobering assessment of humanity's sinfulness, and the insufficiency (or, rather, inability) of human reason properly applied to solve the problems of the age. For the neo-orthodox, one needed more than objective truths or reason, one needed an "encounter" with Christ. And, yet, King could not completely give himself theologically and intellectually over to neo-orthodoxy. Instead, he sought a third way that synthesized the "truths" of both: reason and experience, love and power, tangible and spiritual. What this yielded, in terms of the gospel, was a holistic vision that encompassed the "whole man":

The gospel at its best deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well-being. Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.

Whether one agrees with his theological perspectives or not, King's critiques and journey can prove instructive for us today as we seek to proclaim the power of the Gospel--the good news concerning Christ and the Kingdom of God--over and against the hate, racism, and injustice that persist in our age. We must wrestle seriously not only with Scripture, but also with the evils of our age, and the struggles faced by our fellow human beings. We must recognize our presuppositions and the presuppositions of those we encounter. We must consider how to formulate a theology that is not merely concerned with biblical orthodoxy, but also orthopraxy (belief and practice). 

I'm convinced that our hope is firmly rooted in a concern for the "whole man," for we believe that God in the person and work of Christ is at work redeeming and reconciling all things to himself. Our Gospel is one that celebrates the truth that grace restores nature, broken and marred as it is by sin. This restoration includes, but is not limited to, human nature and our relationship with the Triune God. It also includes the restoration of institutions, systems, and the creation itself as the church (institute) proclaims the gospel and administers the sacraments, and the church (organic) is sent out to serve the risen Christ in all spheres of life. Redeemed and renewed by the power of the Spirit, we can live out our divine callings and begin to see glimmers of the future to come: a world radiating with love, righteousness, justice, and peace. 

And we can pursue this with a sure hope, because we know (to borrow and slightly amend Dr. King's words) that in a dark, confused world the Spirit of God does, and will, reign supreme. 

 

[1] This and subsequent quotations from "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence," by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Christian Century 77 (April 1960), 439-441. 

Comment