The Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr: A Perspective

Rev. Alexander Sharp, Executive Director of PCG, offers this reflection on the theology of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the eve of the national celebration of his birth. This reflection is comprised of excerpts from a sermon that explores the possibility of progress as viewed through the prism of Dr. King’s life and writings. (The full sermon is available upon request to

It has been 44 years since the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. What would he think about our life together today? I doubt very much that he could visualize an African American in the White House so soon. I can only imagine the quiet satisfaction he might feel. But he would agonize over the fact that we are in this country more divided by wealth and income than at any time since the Gilded Age of the 1890s and the Great Depression of the 1930’s. He would not be surprised that African Americans, as usual, are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden. He saw an inextricable link between racial and economic segregation. He came to Chicago in 1965 to press this point. At the time of his death, he was defending the rights of sanitation workers of Memphis, and planning a Poor People’s Campaign to march on Washington D.C.

The War on Drugs had not been undertaken at the time of his death. It was initiated by Richard Nixon in 1971. But he would be fighting against this war with all his might and would hail Michelle Alexander for her clarion voice in calling attention to this War as The New Jim Crow in her book of this title. She tells us that we have become a prisoner nation because the United States incarcerates more individuals than any other country in the world, including China and South Africa, and that African Americans bear the brunt of this oppressive and unjust drug war. In Illinois, blacks are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than whites even though drug use is roughly constant across races. More African Americans enter our prison system each year than our higher education system.

In broadest terms, it is the absence of any sense of seeking the common good in our society today that would sadden Martin Luther King, Jr. most profoundly. More than any voice in the 20th century, he called for a Beloved Community in which we recognize that we are all sisters and brothers equally loved by God and therefore called upon to love each other. Even he might have been surprised by a national government in which neither party can talk to the other side and some leaders view Ayn Rand, the author the book, The Virtue of Selfishness, as their spiritual mentor.

Yes, Martin Luther King would be deeply troubled today. But no more than he was in his own day. This is surely something he wrestled with while he was alive. Listen to these words from a sermon with the grim title, Shattered Dreams: “One of the most agonizing problems within our human experience is that few, if any, of us live to see our fondest hopes fulfilled…In a famous painting, George Frederic Watts portrays Hope as a tranquil figure who, seated atop our planet, her head sadly bowed, plucks a single unbroken harp string. Is there any one of us who has not faced the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?” (Strength to Love p. 87).

How then, did he come terms with constant struggles, the lack of progress, dreams delayed? What can we learn from his capacity to endure and fight on as we face the struggles of today? Most fundamentally, Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in an ultimate reality that makes defeat temporary and redeems our failures. He trusted what Jesus has told us about God as love.

“What is the summum bonum of life?” he asked in a sermon entitled, Paul’s Letter to American Christians. “I think I have discovered the answer, America. I have discovered that the highest good is love. The principle is at the center of the cosmos. It is the greatest unifying force of life. God is love. He who loves has discovered the clue to the meaning of reality; he who hates stands in immediate candidacy for nonbeing.” (p. 152) This is the spiritual platform on which he stood. Quoting again, “I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship.” (p. 163)

I believe this. This is the essential message of our Christian faith. God is love, and God loves creation. This is what Jesus told us most fundamentally. I have argued with skeptics over the years who point out that we make gains, but each step forward carries within the seeds of a new problem. What then, is the basis of our hope in a world where terrible things seem to hold sway over the good? It is this: it matters whether evil is being challenged in this world by truth, or whether truth is being threatened by evil. Goodness, or love, on the one hand, is not the same as evil or darkness. The devil, remember, is a fallen angel. Love is the center of reality. In the words of the Gospel of John, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1: 4-5) Light has primacy over darkness; light is what exists at the end of things. All is not relative or equal.

Love at the center of reality, as it was for King, is significant in other, central ways. It means that God is personal. We can seek guidance from God. We can turn to God for strength. Indeed, we cannot escape God, even if we wanted to. In the words of the psalmist, we hear: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.” (Ps. 139:7-12) About this passage, Dr. King wrote in his sermon, The Death of Evil Upon the Seashore, “The testimony of the psalmist is that we need never walk in darkness.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. received constant phone calls threatening his life, his house was bombed twice, he was stabbed, and jailed 12 times. He turned to God in his darkest hour, during the initial Montgomery boycott, and said that after that, he was able to face similar danger without being afraid. None of will ever know such physical danger and chilling fear. But we all know discouragement, sometimes even despair, in our battles of life, including social change. God is no less a presence available to us than to Dr. King, even though we have not been placed in the maelstrom of history as he was.

King’s sense of God as a personal God of love meant something more for him. It is not just that light prevails over darkness in some metaphorical sense, or is the emotional upheavals of our personal, spiritual lives. The God of love and justice is a God active in history. That’s the point about love; it is not ultimately a concept, it is a force. About the battle against segregation, he said, in his last Sunday morning sermon, “We’re going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands….We shall overcome because the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right—no lie can live forever. We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right—truth crushed to earth will rise again. We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right…”Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet that scaffold always the future, and behind the demon known, stands a God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. never lived in a world of illusions. The best collection of his sermons is a volume, The Strength to Love, and the very one is titled, A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart. “Jesus knew that his disciples would face a difficult and hostile world,” King writes, “where they would … meet cold and arrogant men whose hearts had been hardened by the long winter of traditionalism.” (p. 2)
As a black man raised in the south in the 1930’s and 40’s, it would have been impossible for King to be anything else. I mention this only to underscore that we, too, should not have illusions, and thereby be discouraged when change does not happen without great struggle.

Persistence must always be our watchword. But in our persistence, we can always remember what King knew, which is that God has broken through. The Kingdom is in our midst. “Come and see,” Philip said to Nathanael in our New Testament text. He had seen Jesus and recognized Him as the messiah so long awaited. Nathanael, too, immediately accepted Jesus in the same way, because to a profound and dramatic degree, he sensed that Jesus knew him and his deepest longings. To him Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1: 46,51)

For us, as for Martin Luther King, Jr., our God is a personal God. It is love, not evil, that is at the center of reality. For us, as for Martin Luther King, our God is a God active in history. God has given us our freedom, which means victory will not come easily or quickly. But God is in our midst. Indeed, in the words of our text, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Ps. 139:7) Our struggles toward peace and justice count. They will prevail because they are consistent with the meaning that God has given to this world, to our existence in it, and with the love of God which has been placed in the hearts of us all.

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