Sunday, January 17, 2010

Martin Luther King, Jr.: not a real Christian?

Rev Kit Ketcham, Jan. 17, 2010

Thanks, Gladys. Wow! A Baptist preacher? Not a Christian? Not going to heaven? When I found the words of this reading on the internet recently and read the entire article that contained them, I was struck by two things: first, the research that had been done to develop the thesis and second, the conclusion that King was not going to be there to greet his followers when they reached heaven.

I couldn’t help but wonder at the motivation of the writer, who had taken the time and trouble to read nearly all of King’s published works, who seemed skilled in internet research, and could put words together quite succinctly.

This was an educated person, familiar with scholarly language and research techniques, not boggled by the wealth of materials that must be read carefully, and a writer with some real ability. But she was unable to come to the conclusion that the civil rights hero was as good as she was, that he had pleased God, that he was eligible to join the elect in the Kingdom of Heaven, as she saw it.

In the rest of the article she and those who responded publicly to her article praised Dr. King’s work on behalf of the African-Americans who have been so badly oppressed for centuries in this country. But she criticized his work as mere “social gospel”, not real Christian witness, and asserted strongly that Dr. King and all those who agreed with him were not real Christians and would not be going to heaven.

Gosh, ma’am, with all due respect, I think you’re not the one who will be deciding this.

Fascinated by her article, I reread the passages in King’s published works which bothered her. She had made it easy by copying many segments of them into her article: there’s one about literal interpretation of the Bible, another about where the doctrine of Jesus’ being God had come from, still another about his doubts about the virgin birth and the physical resurrection of Jesus.

And then to top it all off in her mind, Dr. King describes fundamentalism as promoting and preserving supernatural doctrines which are contrary to science and open to skepticism and ridicule.

Even before he died, Dr. King was unrepentant, the author says, and lumped Jesus in with other thinkers such as Aristotle and Socrates and Gandhi, in his speech in Memphis, the very night before he died. She says he died a heretic and was doubtless consigned to the flames of hell.

Well! I felt grateful to the anonymous author of the article because she had outlined quite clearly the very premises that brought me to Unitarian Universalism many decades ago: that it is impossible for me to consider the Bible infallible and the literal words of God; that Jesus did not consider himself God---and neither do I; that the virgin birth is a story, not literal fact, a story told long after his life ended to emphasize the special person he was; and that the physical resurrection is also a story, a metaphor for a life transformed by insight and experience, and in that way immortal.

In a story in the UU World magazine a few years ago, my colleague and friend the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt wrote an article about an interview she had with Coretta Scott King a few years before Mrs. King died. In it, Mrs. King is quoted as saying that before the civil rights movement began in earnest, she and Dr. King had considered becoming Unitarians because of their preference for Unitarian thought and theology.

But the couple returned to the South to do their important work of leading the civil rights movement because they knew that only a huge, passionate, emotional body of followers like beleaguered and oppressed African American Christians would have the impetus and the effectiveness to create long-lasting social change, in the heated environment of the segregated South. The victims of discrimination needed to be the ones to end that discrimination, with the help of their allies outside that community.

So here we have an educated, liberal, Unitarian-leaning black pastor who has stepped up to the plate to provide leadership to a throng of followers whose religious beliefs probably do include literal belief in supernatural doctrines and are praying for miracles to relieve their misery.

And what does Martin Luther King Jr. do in this situation? Does he try to convert his followers to his liberal, Unitarianish theology? No, he doesn’t. He’d lose them if he did. And that’s not the important issue here anyhow.

Dr. King probably knew that there would be those who would criticize him for not preaching the doctrine of Christ crucified, as other black Baptist preachers were doing at the time. He probably wouldn’t be surprised by our anonymous author’s words.

But I suspect he would shrug it off and agree with me. Christ crucified was not the issue. In the terminology of popularized religious thought these days, “what would Jesus do?” Black people lynched and intimidated and impoverished---that was the issue. And it seemed pretty clear what Jesus would do under those circumstances.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a deeply religious man and acted on his inner faith WITHIN the venue of the African American theology of the day, which generally was fairly fundamentalist---literal interpretation of the Bible, a deep belief in the supernatural events depicted in the Bible, “washed in the blood” salvation, and belief in a new life in heaven after death.

But overlaid on this theology was the great misery of oppression, oppression which had lasted for centuries, oppression that denied human rights ranging from slavery, physical and psychological cruelty, citizenship, even the right to live.

Instead of freedom, our African American brothers and sisters were obliged to rely on the promises of religion, a faith tradition which combined ancient African ancestor veneration and the Christianity that was forced upon them by slaveholders, a Christianity that said that slaves should obey their masters. For them, religion promised a better life after death, which helped to mitigate some of the pain of oppression, at least temporarily.

But Martin Luther King Jr. saw that this was no easy solution. His understandings of the Christian gospel gave him the perspective to see another, better way---the way of non-violent resistance.

He saw it work in the life of Mahatma Gandhi, as Gandhi resisted the colonization and oppression of India by the British Empire. He saw it in Jesus’ instruction to “love your enemies, do good to those who misuse you” and he thought it could be the way out of slavery (for even in the 20th century, treatment of African Americans has had its overtones of enslavement.

But how was he to walk that fine line of liberal thinker, speaking in love to non-liberal, frightened, angry, oppressed people? How was he to maintain his religious integrity and also speak the language of the people he came to serve?

I remember an incident many years ago, when I was a home missionary in the Denver Christian Center, coming home to Goldendale where my parents lived and being asked to speak to my dad’s little Baptist congregation.

I had been schooled all my life in conservative theology, going to elementary school in the Portland Christian School system, which my parents had helped to start. I had attended Sunday School every week of my life since I could walk, at least until I went to college. I was baptized by my dad at the very early age of 6.

My parents were a little nervous about my going to Linfield College in 1959, even though it was a Baptist college, because of the threat they saw from “modernism”, the teachings of science and anthropology having wrought upheaval in the religious status quo. But I had scholarships there, it was close to home, and I was eager to go.

Those college years had opened my eyes in a lot of ways, especially about religion. I had studied other religions, I had learned more about Christianity, and those old Sunday School teachings didn’t seem particularly relevant any more. So when I went off to Denver to be an American Baptist Home Missionary, I was ready for new insights and understandings.

Several months after beginning my work at the Christian Center and standing in the pulpit that Sunday morning, I told the congregation about the Christian Center and the kind of good works we were offering the inner city of Denver----a preschool, an optometric clinic, teen activities, after-school programming, food pantry, clothing bank, personal and employment counseling.

But I ran out of things to say and let people ask questions. Eventually one man asked “how many souls have you saved for Christ?” and turned a Sunday morning service into a crisis of faith for me.

If that was what Christianity needed from me, I wasn’t willing to give it. And I walked out after the service wondering how I could tell my folks that I wasn’t a Christian any more.

Luckily, after some soul-searching, I realized that I just wasn’t “that kind” of Christian anymore and that there might be more to Christianity than the narrow viewpoint of my questioner.

I have wondered if Martin Luther King Jr., himself the son of a Baptist preacher, probably a conservative Baptist preacher in the old style like my dad, ever had that same crisis of faith.

If so, how did he hang onto his religious integrity and yet move so many people whose beliefs were likely more like his dad’s than his own?

As I’ve read MLK’s writings and written many sermons about him and his life, I’m inclined to believe that MLK Jr. saw that there were more important issues to be dealt with than whether or not Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead.

Perhaps he came to the same conclusion I have come to over the years, that Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness and non-violence is the real miracle, that water turned into wine and children and adults healed of illness, a bodily resurrection from the dead---these can have alternative explanations. But love and forgiveness and non-violence stand alone in their beauty and their ability to produce the unbelievable.

Jesus’ message translated, for MLK Jr., into a way of life that could transform oppression into full citizenship, into peace of mind, into confidence and a sense of self worth.

Listen to this from Dr. King:
“…The non-violent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding…(He) seeks to attack the evil system rather than individuals who happen to be caught up in the system.”
“…Love in its highest sense is not a sentimental sort of thing…(It is expressed by) the Greek word agape. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive good will for all…It is the love of God working in the minds of men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.”
“…I think every person who believes in nonviolent resistance believes somehow that the universe in some form is on the side of justice. That there is something unfolding in the universe whether one speaks of it as an unconscious process, or whether one speaks of it as some unmoved mover, or whether someone speaks of it as a personal God. There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice and so in Montgomery we felt somehow that as we struggled, we had cosmic companionship. And this was one of the things that kept the people together, the belief that the universe is on the side of justice.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., did not call upon God to deliver African American captives from oppression. He believed that those captives had power and strength of their own and could work with the dynamic love inherent in the universe and in human hearts to relieve that oppression without using force against the oppressors, without becoming bullies themselves out of their anger and resentment, without losing their humanity by denying others’ theirs.

Martin Luther King, Jr., believed in a God of love, a universe of balance in which wrong action would be overcome by right action, a Christian message of brotherly and sisterly love, a simple rule of treating one’s neighbor with respect and compassion.

Martin Luther King Jr has become an icon of transformational social action. As his life and ministry progressed, his awareness of injustice went beyond the struggles of African American civil liberties and he spoke out about the war in Vietnam and in support of underpaid, overworked laborers.

Our esteemed member and my colleague, the Rev. Mitchell Howard, when Gladys and I were working on this service at their house last week, sent me a copy of a sermon he had given in San Mateo CA 21 years ago, on MLK’s birthday, describing an immense anti-Vietnam war rally in NYC he had attended, in 1967,at which MLK had spoken. I’d like to quote him here.
“I am mindful,” he wrote, “of the lesson that long-ago April day held about the mysteries of leadership and sobering fragility of life in the shadow of violent power. I also remember being awed by Dr. King’s eloquent voice and magnetic spirit, and thinking how poignantly right and wonderful it seemed to me, that the greatest American of my time had arisen from out of a people long held in contempt and bondage by the powers that ruled this land.”

Our worship theme this month is “the God question”---who or what is the creative force, the driving force, the energy which moves the universe. And since the anonymous writer who decried MLK as not a real Christian has had her say, I’d like to tell you what I think about Martin Luther King Jr. and his relationship with God, Higher Power, whatever you may call the power beyond human power.

I think that Martin Luther King Jr. saw God as mystery, as love, as the Creator who gave freedom to all, a force which worked through nature and history to change lives. MLK mentions the arc of the universe which bends toward justice; in that arc, he saw Divinity. He felt a cosmic companionship as he and his followers marched endlessly for equal rights. He saw God as the Creative spirit, the master of the cosmic order who shaped the universe to be an instrument of equality and justice. He saw the image of that Divine Creative force in every person, even his enemies, and it calls for compassion, understanding and love.

And in his last speech, the night before he died, he spoke of “only wanting to do God’s will”. What might that mean? Looking at his life, I believe that doing God’s will meant to continue to preach love and justice, forgiveness and compassion; to strive for equality between human beings; and to act non-violently, with love, toward those who would treat him badly.

Martin Luther King Jr. said all these things repeatedly to those who listened, always using language that all could claim and understand, not decrying other definitions of God but gathering and defining them together in common, encouraging, strengthening language.

Martin Luther King Jr. was only human. We know he had his lapses and his faults. Like us, he hurt people by his actions on occasion and repented of those actions. But to me, he was a Christian who actually “got it”, “got” the message of Jesus as few others have.

His message of non-violent resistance has inspired generations of social activists and has given language and strategy for solving conflicts, big and small. Those who use those skills are able to foster positive changes in their own lives and in the lives of their communities.

In keeping with the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr’s life and ministry, this congregation is sponsoring, along with several other faith groups on the island, a workshop to teach non-violent communication skills. You’ll hear more about it in the weeks to come; it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn the skills of non-violent communication and resolution of conflict, drawn from the very methods that Gandhi and MLK and others have used to effect tremendous social change. It’ll be March 5 & 6, here in this building. It’s inexpensive, there’ll be child care and LUNCH!

And in that same spirit, our board of trustees and our committee on ministry are collaborating to help us all develop a covenant of right relations, a covenant of how we are with one another, using non-violent communication language and methods. It will be a worthwhile effort and you’ll be hearing more about that soon as well.

I’d like to close with this prayer from MLK:
“Oh God, help us in our lives and in all of our attitudes, to work out this controlling force of love, this controlling power that can solve every problem that we confront in all areas. Oh, we talk about politics; we talk about the problems facing our atomic civilization. Grant that all men will come together and discover that as we solve the crisis and solve these problems "the international problems, the problems of atomic energy, the problems of nuclear energy, and yes, even the race problem" let us join together in a great fellowship of love and bow down at the feet of Jesus. Give us this strong determination. In the name and spirit of this Christ, we pray. Amen.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, committed to the ideals of love, forgiveness, and compassion and ready to bring them to bear upon the injustices we see around us. May we strive to live without violence, either in deed or language, and may we offer the light we bear to all we meet. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


David P. said...


Could you link the article you mentioned?

Yours in faith,


ms. kitty said...

You'll find it at the end of the post above, David. Thanks for the reminder.

Ms. Theologian said...

Great sermon, Ms. Kitty!

Mile High Pixie said...

Rev. Kit, Thanks so much for an eloquent discussion of a public figure who was more complicated that I could have imagined! How intriguing to find that while he was resistant to the literal interpretation of the Bible, he would be willing to use that sort of platform to move forward his message of social change and acceptance. It's interesting to see this anonymous writer's take on what constitutes a "real Christian"--is there only one definition? I daresay that when confronted with the question that old-school parishioner asked you, you could honestly say "every soul that has walked through that door has been "saved" by the power of the love of Christ, even if I'm not laying hands on them. I save my brothers and sisters from a life of ignorance and poverty, and when I do so, I carry out Jesus' message and meaning, and thereby have 'saved' them."

And I actually laughed out loud at the line "Gosh, ma’am, with all due respect, I think you’re not the one who will be deciding this." How easily we forget that judgement is God's alone, and not ours at all.

DairyStateDad said...

DairyStateMom and I are on a getaway this weekend and played hookey from either/both of our churches. So I'm especially indebted to you for posting this sermon and thus enriching my spiritual life today. Thank you...


ms. kitty said...

Glad everyone stopped by today! Hope your long weekend has many blessings.

Miss Kitty said...

Fantastic sermon, Ms. K! You handled that masterfully. (((hugs)))