Fifty years ago this week, the greatest American prophetic voice of the twentieth century was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the preeminent prognosticator of justice produced by the democratic experiment known as the United States of America. The prophet is a person who threatens culture’s power structure by holding up a mirror to its folly and showing where such folly leads. History reveals that culture kills such prophets, and having killed the prophet to be rid of their threat, that culture then builds a mythology through which that prophet can be reformed from cultural critic into a cultural supporter (Pearce 2002). In fact, nearly all great movements are founded by prophetic genius, however the pioneering work of a prophetic genius establishing a mode of thought is often co-opted by lesser intellectuals. The army of lessor intellects scatter the thought broadcast and it becomes a permanent, yet distorted, factor in the broader culture (Dresser 1895). Such is the tragic case of Dr. King. While we celebrate him as a hero, the man we celebrate is monstrously abbreviated by our need to ignore the radicalism of his message and assuage the guilt we have for not embodying the fullness of his challenge to our culture.
While it would be easy to reduce King’s message to a dream about racial equality, in reality this academic rhetorician had a very nuanced and sophisticated Theo-political message that cannot be truncated to the issue of race. Just as we are together with our Jewish siblings celebrating Passover this week, which also cannot be truncated to an issue of racial inequality, both are direct responses to the evils of empire. It is obvious that the narrative of Passover moves ultimately to it’s own ratification of empire, but at its origin it is a resistance moment. As much as we are tempted to limit these historical movements to the triumph of race, both stories are born in the economic injustice of a wicked empire. Prophetic religious tradition is always centered in resistance. Resistance is the physical, overt expression of an inner attitude, so in the tradition of Moses, Martin Luther King Jr. taught a generation of Americans how to engage a public theology of resistance (Thurman 1976). King’s great contribution to the whole of Christianity is to remind The Church that we must insist upon both this-worldly liberation and otherworldly salvation as the proper loci of the message of Jesus (West 2002).
Volumes have been written on the task of The Church. Many argue that sole purpose of The Church is salvation of the soul for eternal security, while others believe the primary task of The Church is to transform the society. True religion understands existential freedom and social freedom are inseparable. In fact, social freedom is a natural outgrowth of existential freedom, for existential freedom is the fount of all social liberation. As Dr. King led the charge against imperialism, materialism, militarism, and racism he did so because He understand that salvation of the soul is incomplete without deliverance from oppression. Taking seriously the person and work of Jesus meant for Dr. King to preach the gospel to the poor. It was while working The Poor People’s Campaign he was assassinated, not for fighting on behalf of Black people, but because any prophet who speaks back to the empire will always find themselves an enemy of the state.
Fifty years after his murder many find ourselves wondering if The Church has really embraced the legacy of Dr. King or have we allowed his legacy to be hijacked and sanitized to the point that we have lost the prophetic critique that was true of his words and work? For King, the Kingdom [sic] of God is neither the thesis of individual enterprise nor the antithesis of collective enterprise, but a synthesis which reconciles the truths of both (Jr. 2015). How will your commemoration of Dr. King this week live into the theological depth and significance of this prophetic genius? It would be a grave error for us in our local congregations to stop at anti-racism work and fail to engage the critical work of dismantling all the ways in which our local congregations and communities are complicit in structures which are contrary to redemptive message of Jesus the Divine Liberator. The essential challenge of this season of commemoration is to ignite the hearts of each parishioner with the fire of the prophetic in new and living ways.
Please feel free to post your thoughts below!
Peace Is Possible,
Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Dresser, Annetta Gertrude. 1895. The Philosophy of P.P. Quimby. Boston: The Builders Press.
Jr., Martin Luther King. 2015. The Radical King. Edited by Cornell West. Boston: Beacon Press.
Pearce, Joseph Chilton. 2002. The Biology of Transcendence: A Blueprint of the Human Spirit. Rochester: Park Street Press.
Thurman, Howard. 1976. Jesus and the Disinherited . Boston: Beacon Press.
West, Cornel. 2002. Prophsey Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity . Louiseville: John Knox Press.