(This essay was republished on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King’s death. It first appeared as an op-ed in the Long Beach (CA) Press-Telegram on Sunday, April 6, 2008)
Dr. King’s Religious Legacy
By Donald P. Shoemaker
Grace Community Church of Seal Beach
Chairman, Social Concerns Committee
Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches
April 4, 1968. Those old enough will remember right where they were when they heard the news. I was working at a hotel front desk in my college town when the story broke. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. I passed a note to a group of educators attending a lecture in the hotel. As quickly as the meeting ended, they flocked to hear the TV reports.
I heard Dr. King in person once. In 1966 he preached in my hometown of Mansfield, Ohio at the church his uncle pastored. My fiancé and I heard him deliver a hypothetical epistle of St. Paul to American Christians (a chapter in his book Strength to Love). He spoke of how our moral progress lags behind our scientific progress and our mentality outdistances our morality.
From Montgomery to Memphis on into our future, his legacy grew and remains. Arguably his greatest work was “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in April, 1963, when he was arrested and placed in the city jail for a non-violent protest against segregation. He responded to a “Call to Unity” issued by some local clergy who opposed his civil disobedience and called instead for peaceful obedience while racial issues could be pursued in the courts.
The God-grounded, faith-based, scripture-laced nature of the movement he led is obvious from any fair reading of his letter or his autobiography. Putting specific issues aside and looking at the foundations of the movement, we wonder if his message would be in sync with today’s secularized thinking.
With a religious foundation like his, how could those who didn’t share it join in his cause? Because the struggle he led was rooted in a moral reality that transcended his religion.
“There are two types of laws: just and unjust,” Dr. King said. “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”
We must obey just laws. An unjust law—a law that degrades human personality, that creates a false superiority and inferiority, that turns a person into an “it” (as segregation laws do) is really no law at all and should be disobeyed. Such laws are not only sociologically unsound, they are morally wrong and sinful.
To the mainstream clergy who issued the “Call to Unity” Dr. King confessed, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.” These words likewise chastise much of the Protestant evangelicalism of that time, which is my own heritage.
Evangelicals had been “burnt” by the modernist/fundamentalist controversies of the early Twentieth Century and had retreated into quietism and social isolation. While opposing segregation in principle, they would not do so in action. “This world is not my home; I’m just a-passin’ through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue” was our attitude.
True as that gospel song is, it is half-truth. It must be balanced by the drive for justice in the Prophet Jeremiah’s word from God to the Jews exiled in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:7): “Seek the welfare (shalom) of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because in its welfare (shalom) is your welfare.”
A second reason for our failure was our emphasis on evangelizing individuals to the neglect of social transformation. “Save souls one by one. When we’ve saved enough individuals,” we told ourselves, “we’ll see society change and evils like segregation will pass away.”
How naïve and bad theology to boot! Winning souls doesn’t guarantee the end of social evil—not even in the hearts of the “saved.” And it may be 100 years before enough segregationists are “born again” and rightly motivated to make a dent in this injustice. Dr. King’s letter reminds us of the inadequacy of this thinking and how institutionalized evil can be worse than individual evil. “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as [theologian and social critic] Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”
Against our passivity back then and sometimes now, Dr. King still speaks, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God.”
© 2008 Donald Shoemaker