So, Who Was Dr. King?
One of the most significant men who have lived in my lifetime has been Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My problem with Dr. King lies basically in the fact that I am an Evangelical and don’t know how to interpret him. Judging people sort of comes with the territory of being an Evangelical, which may be to some degree hypocritical if you consider what Jesus said about judging people but if you are an Evangelical you will understand this is our tendency. We want to know if someone is “saved” and if they are we feel like they are on our side and we are happy about it. This especially involves anyone famous such as athletes, politicians, movie stars, etc. Once we establish that they have a “testimony” (which we take as a creedal or doctrinal confession of personal belief), then we watch to see if they are consistent with their lifestyle, their doctrine, and their politics, especially if they are a politician. We don’t really care about the politics of other famous believers, as long as they don’t champion causes we don’t like, then we suspect that they are not really saved but most likely a “Liberal.” We Evangelicals find it hard to be thankful for good results from what we consider to be fallen and unsaved folk. We are especially hard on them if they politically disagree with some of our strongly held moral and ethical views. If they are unsaved but conservative, even if by their own words we know they don’t believe in Christ, we are not quite so hard on them. We are of course personally thankful for good doctors, good pilots, good mechanics, good plumbers, good computer techs, etc. and sometimes will thank God that their skills saved our lives, kept us safe, or delivered us from our own ineptness. Usually liberal theologians or clergy are easily dismissed as irrelevant, in a dying church, or just irritating. Then of course if one or more of them really makes the headlines we just see them as the spawn of Satan. So how am I supposed to view Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? For some Evangelicals this is an easy thing to answer as they can categorize him in various ways. “He was a Communist,” some might say. “He was a Liberal, who believed and practiced the “Social Gospel” and therefore misled people when he should have been preaching the Gospel,” some will say. At the very least some Evangelicals would say he was problematic, meaning to do well but stirring up trouble everywhere he went, a hero to his people but personally flawed even in his personal morality. Let me give you some of my opinion about him. He is and was a hero to me. I think he was one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. I believe God used him, as God sovereignly uses significant people in history, to bring justice and change to our nation in such momentous ways that it is hard to imagine where America would have been without him. He was one of America’s greatest preachers and orators, a man of great vision, a man who used a Jesus derived strategy to stand against evil and stand up for justice. I am convinced there is absolutely no proof or credibility to the claim that he was a Communist. Certainly from his own pen he deconstructed communism just as any Evangelical might. A few quick quotes from his autobiography, “First, I rejected their materialistic interpretation of history. Communism, avowedly secularistic and materialistic, has no place for God. This I could never accept, for as a Christian I believe that there is a creative personal power in this universe who is the ground and essence of all reality…” Again, “Second, I strongly disagreed with communism’s ethical relativism.” And again, “Third, I opposed communism’s political totalitarianism.” [From The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson, p. 20, Grand Central Publishing, 1998] Of course the Anti-communists, those who have a paranoid fanaticism in their commitment against communism will say that “all Communists lie and will tell you anything to convince you they are on your side.” I don’t doubt that some Communists have lied to achieve power, but Dr. King surely would have made a poor Communist for all of his claims to believe in God and by his rigorous criticism of the materialistic nature of the Communist movement. Most who called him a Communist did so, frankly speaking, because they were racist or too easily believed a racist lie, and would not give African Americans credibility that they were suffering injustice. Evidently in American history the Colonists could suffer injustice from England and have the right to protest and fight a revolution. Southerners could feel they had the right to rebel against the Union if the Union sought to limit slavery thus limiting their freedoms, but African Americans had no such right to stand up against oppression because, well, they are black and that is what black people deserved. I admire his courage, his leadership, his strategic thinking, his incisive critique of the hypocrisy of segregation when seen against our American ideals and Constitutional rights. I hurt in my heart when I think of what I have learned about segregation in my own country, when I hear him write and speak of the indignity of what law condoned discrimination felt like to him as a human being. Injustice makes me angry, and I admire any man or woman who is angry at evil, because the Scriptures teach that is right to hate evil. Yet I admire a man who sought consistently and valiantly, often against great odds, to keep from hating people. The very people who beat him, arrested him, tried to kill him, lied about him, bombed his house, and practiced the evil that he hated. He prayed to love, to not be bitter, to return love for hate. So, what is my problem? I am an Evangelical, and though I realize of course that many of my fellow believers were on the wrong side of the Civil Rights movement, and some even to this day believe slanders and lies about a very great man, (though certainly not all), my problem is with Dr. King’s own faith. He himself is very ambiguous about his faith. Though raised in the traditional church he clearly expressed disbelief in the bodily resurrection of Christ. He took the side of liberal theology in its higher critical destructive evisceration of the Bible, the very Word of God. This did not happen because he was denied entrance to some conservative school, but because of his own doubts and unbelief beginning in his youth. Was there reason to doubt the integrity of those Evangelical, conservative Christians, who were racist, some members of the Klan, and those who falsely used the Bible to justify segregation? Certainly, but our hypocrisy doesn’t change the reality of revealed Truth, it only proves our own wickedness. Dr. King found himself accepting liberal scholarship about the Scriptures (which in my opinion turns out to be very poor scholarship based on faulty prior assumptions) but desperately fighting for personal faith, and fighting for an overall philosophy to combat the evils that he saw. These were the very Scriptures that gave him some understanding of the absolutes of justice and love. I have no doubt Dr. King had a very sincere faith. He was a man of prayer. He confesses many times an absolute need to depend on God, yet he sees Jesus only in a limited way. He understood the message of the Gospel, but without a risen Christ it is hard to see how the sacrifice of Jesus really can take away sins. And so I see in him a great dilemma, a limit of the spiritual power he could have had, and therefore a great loss to himself and to all of us. It is not my place to send any man to heaven or to hell; judgment lies in God’s hands. I only know what Dr. King has told us about himself, and I wish with all my heart I could hold him as an Evangelical, but he was not one, by his own account. Therefore I just have to accept him as a very great man, who did very great things, and brought about a very great change in our nation. Now, if you don’t like him for what he did and for the changes that he helped to bring about then his not being an Evangelical will be just one more reason you can dismiss him. That would be as dumb as dismissing any of the wonderful and talented men and women God has given to the world, who were used by God to bless all of us, yet who might possibly never have known the true God for themselves. If you don’t hate injustice, if you don’t hate evil, if you can’t celebrate the triumph of truth and freedom then of course Dr. King can be easily dismissed. I suppose you will have to figure out what are the things that are important to God, you know, like what is good and what the Lord requires of you.