Martin Luther and Martin Luther King

In my course on the thought of Martin Luther King, as we explore various influences on MLK, we are spending some time on the influence of Protestant theology, and specifically, the debates within American Lutheranism that King encountered when he attended Crozer Theological Seminary and then BU’s School of Theology.

One motivation for assigning Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Howard Thurman–along with Martin Buber and some excerpts from the Bible–is to help us understand how King thought. In other words, there is a biographical reason to read these works. But I also believe that it’s our obligation to try to understand justice and injustice, and we inevitably do so by working critically and creatively with the materials we inherit. For Christians, those materials include the highly heterogeneous inheritance of scripture and doctrine, from which many ideas can be made. So, although I am secular, I find it useful to watch Christian theologians work with those inherited materials, and their insights often translate.

One topic for theology in any of the Abrahamic faiths is: Why is there evil in a world created by an omnipotent and omniscient God? And what is the solution to this evil?

For MLK, the specific versions of these questions are: Why does racism (and poverty, and war) exist? What is the solution? Note that it’s a choice to use religious terms like “sin,” and it’s worth thinking about whether these words can and should be translated into secular terms, such as “inequity.”

Howard Thurman puts the question more forcefully (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 7): “Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin?” Is this impotence intrinsic to Christianity or a betrayal of it?

In the background is Martin Luther’s view that we all sin. (Even if you didn’t commit any sinful acts, you would have sinful thoughts and sins of omission). No one merits salvation. Salvation is by grace, through Jesus Christ, and enabled by “faith alone.” This faith is individual: an inner state. There is no solution to sin in this world, although you will not intentionally and grievously sin if you are faithful.

Translated into politics, this doctrine can promote acceptance of injustice in this world and an emphasis on individual faith, although Protestant thinkers have not all reached such conclusions.

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918) preached “The Social Gospel.” For him, sin has a social cause; it’s not just individual. In Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 60, he writes, “sin is transmitted along the lines of social tradition.” “Sin is lodged in social customs and institutions.” An explicit example (p. 79) is racism, which doesn’t come naturally but is “lodged” in customs.

For instance, to steal is to break the Seventh Commandment. But people steal because of private property, scarcity, and inequality. The cause is root is “profitability.” With alcoholism and militarism, the mechanism is social authority, which explicitly favors wine and war (pp. 63-5).

The solution is social reform. Social reform can be fully successful on earth. At a minimum, Rauschenbusch endorses “the feasibility of a fairly righteous and fraternal social order” (p. 102)

The Christian Bible is compatible with this view. To put it bluntly, Jesus wants social reform. Individual salvation and conversion really mean social commitment (p. 98). Faith really means hope in social change and a commitment to work for it (p. 101). Sanctification is accomplished by cooperative work. And prayer has pragmatic value. God is a real interlocutor, but the reason to pray is to receive divine encouragement for social work (p. 105)    

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) distinguishes moral “man” (we could say, “individuals”) from immoral society. This is a way of finding both good and evil in the created world.

Individuals can strive for unselfishness, and this is a valid ideal for us as individuals. Selflessness is an intrinsic goal. For instance (per Moral Man and Immoral Society, p. 263), Jesus doesn’t command us to forgive our enemies as a strategy for social change but as “an effort to approximate complete moral perfection, the perfection of God.”

If individuals would all be altruistic, society would not have to coerce and punish. There would be no need for law. And when human relations are “intimate,” love can generate justice (p. 266)

But individuals will never all be altruistic at large scales, so we need coercion: law, power, and conflict. (This is a version of original sin.)

Whereas people should strive to be unselfish, laws must be made just. Justice and altruism fit together uncomfortably. The tension is permanent. But we need both.

Specifically, African Americans have been patient and peaceful, but this has not accomplished justice (p. 268). One specific problem has been the temptation of privileged minorities of Blacks to defect to the dominant group (p. 274).  Pacifism is “altogether unrealistic” (p. 269) and selfishness is inevitable (p. 272). Thinking that society can be made moral encourages fanaticism (p. 277).

But that doesn’t make Niebuhr a hard-nosed realist. He argues that a society needs people who strive for individual goodness. Retaining the inner ideal of unselfishness is “not a luxury but a necessity of the soul.” (p. 277)

Howard Washington Thurman (1899 – 1981) begins by noting that there are many sermons about the Christian obligations of the rich. But what does Christianity say to the oppressed?

God could have taken any human form to save the earth. God chose to be a poor Jew during the Roman Empire, a member of a “minority” (p. 17). Jesus was someone without legal privileges (p. 33) Why did God choose this vessel?

Because Jews were persecuted. Jesus’ sacrifice was not only a death that was an opportunity for a miracle; it was specifically a political persecution. Jesus was unjustly executed by the state because he was poor and a member of a minority group. He preached to the disinherited, not to the powerful.

Jesus’ lot is “the position of the disinherited of every age … This is the question of the Negro in American life.” (p. 23). Thurman explores the “striking similarity” of ancient Jews to modern Blacks (p. 34)

Anyone who is disinherited faces these four choices:

  1. Nonresistance > Imitation (the path of Herod and the Sadducees)
  2. Nonresistance > Separatism (the Pharisees)
  3. Resistance > Armed (the Zealots)
  4. Resistance > Nonviolence (Jesus) “a technique of survival for the oppressed” p. 29

Hence Jesus and God stand with the disinherited. As in the title of Thurman’s early article: “Good news for the disinherited.”

These are some of the materials from which the young Martin Luther began to stitch his own cloth.

See also: the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology; notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; how to think about the self (Buddhist and Kantian perspectives); and the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.