By Richard Lischer, James T. and Alice Mead Cleland Professor Emeritus of Preaching
Friday, January 18, 2019
MLK, Duke
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in Page Auditorium on November 13, 1964. Repository: Duke University Archives

On what would have been Martin Luther King’s 80th birthday, Congressman John Lewis remarked, “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.” Who could fail to be moved by Lewis’ image of a black American president waiting on the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge to welcome the courageous marchers? It is becoming increasingly clear that the same bridge and the same courage connect King’s movement of 50 years ago with recently formed protest movements such as Black Lives Matter, Hands Up United, Muslim Lives Matter, and North Carolina’s Moral Mondays.

At first glance, today’s protests seem far removed from the world of King’s movement. The killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner set off demonstrations in cities from coast to coast. King’s most famous campaigns received national attention, but they were local in character. They focused on the unremarkable practices that still constitute ordinary life in America: matters of human decency, such as the right to eat in a diner or go to a movie, to ride a bus, stay in a motel, or vote in a democratic country. King enlarged upon these targeted demands and used them as points of entry into full equality, justice, and partnership for all.

Unlike contemporary protests, the civil rights movement of the 1960s was a top-down operation. What began as local resistance—led by militant women in Montgomery, a fiery preacher in Birmingham, a physician in Albany, Ga.—became the signature movements of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under the charismatic leadership of Martin Luther King.

That movement insisted on comprehensive meaning. King’s abundant use of biblical metaphor and story made it inevitable that concrete political acts would stand for other realities. Although he was a shrewd social strategist, his genius was poetic in nature, for he had the prophet’s eye for seeing local injustices in the light of transcendent truths. To King’s eye, ordinary Southern towns became theaters of divine revelation, and the gospel became a live option for the renewal of public life.

The movement had but one voice, and it was his. In his first public speech on behalf of freedom, the 26-year-old pastor announced that the boycott in Montgomery would follow the example of Jesus. No white person, he said, would be dragged from his bed in the middle of the night, driven down some dark road, and lynched. Like a seer, he told his audience they stood “at the daybreak of freedom.” Like a pastor, he told them never to be afraid. He introduced the nation to a method of real, and not symbolic, social change that on theological grounds eliminated the use of violence. He modeled a way for blacks to fight for their lives without losing their souls. He made racism a theological issue for white Christians.

King meant to create a social revolution in the mirror of Scripture and the gospel. His interpretive world was the world of Ebenezer Baptist Church. He was anointed with its hope and fired by its language. When he preached at Ebenezer he stood in an elevated pulpit beneath a neon cross, surrounded and enfolded by the faithful. He interpreted Scripture by means of a double hermeneutic. At Ebenezer, the Bible and human history constituted a vast tapestry with a single recurring pattern: deliverance. “Whenever God speaks,” he once exclaimed in a sermon on the Exodus, “he says, ‘Go forward.’” Everywhere he looked, he claimed to see the amazing deliverance of God breaking out and spreading across the land.

His second hermeneutical principle was more controversial. Because it is God’s work, liberation will not occur “by any means necessary.” It will be guided by love. He confounded his opponents by speaking of “the weapon of love” and insisted that agape must not be limited to interpersonal relationships or relegated to the end of history. “Love” could march; it could walk into a restaurant and demand a cup of coffee. But most of all, it could suffer. In the mass meetings they sang, “Freedom is a constant dying.” By the end of his life King had so closely associated his own fate with the crucified Lord’s it made his friends shake their heads in apprehension.

Martin Luther KingAlthough he worked tirelessly for the passage of new laws, he himself was always straining toward something just beyond the grasp of the law: social, political, and economic equality to be sure, but also genuine friendship within a common life. He called it the Beloved Community. What will it look like? At the Lincoln Memorial he said it would look like white people and black people sitting at the same table and treating one another as kin. Later, as the season of white backlash set in and allies deserted him over Vietnam, he was prone to call it the kingdom of God.

Contemporary protests appear to have tapered King’s vision while forging new methods of leadership. The new leaders are not household names. Unlike their predecessors, they do not make speeches for the ages. No one has had a dream or been to the mountaintop. The dramatic news bulletins of 50 years ago (“We interrupt this program ...”) have been replaced by the drone of continuous coverage on television, even as television itself is being rendered obsolete by social media, which in turn is facilitating new, decentralized forms of leadership. The three women who founded Black Lives Matter created it as a Twitter hashtag.
 Furthermore, the current crisis appears to be less amenable to a single remedy. Protesters seek multiple changes in policy and tactics on the part of local government and law enforcement officials throughout the nation. Each town and hamlet has its own racial history and dynamics, and each has its own way of responding to dissent. Of the 91 municipalities and townships strangling the city of St. Louis, nearly all have their own city halls, police departments, and stockpiles of military weapons. The conditions that would permit lethal force remain vague and maddeningly subjective. The equipment itself, to say nothing of those who wield it, argues not only against the possibility of the Beloved Community but against a neat legal solution.

The current ideology of protest streamlines the lofty purpose of King’s movement, “to redeem the soul of America.” Black Lives Matter employs the religious-neutral language of understatement in order to make a claim so profoundly true that it should be obvious to all. It should go without saying that the lives of black people, as well as Muslims, women, gays, and Jews, deserve to be as richly cared for as all others. Like King’s movement, current protests are also nonviolent—but without the doctrinaire insistence on love. Most protests today are not led by pastors, though it is important to note that churches and their leaders are not far from the struggle. One night at the height of tensions in Ferguson, CNN reported that 100 pastors were walking the streets. They were “out there” in the same liminal space King and his followers once occupied, the no-man’s land between justice and nonviolence.

Despite changed circumstances and methods, the new movements represent an extension of King’s struggle. King would have been the first to agree, for in the parlance of his day, “Movement” (with no article) was one thing, and it never stops. Already by 1955 King had set his face against the injustices of 2015. When the young pastor stepped up to the microphone in Montgomery to make his first speech, the air was abuzz with the excitement of a bus boycott. But King quickly made it clear that freedom would entail more than a better seat on the bus. A boy named Emmett Till had just been murdered in Money, Miss. His courageous mother had insisted on an open casket in order to show the world the hideous badges of Southern racism. That, too, was in the air. By disavowing black violence in his speech, King called attention to white brutality. By praising the dignity of Rosa Parks, he illumined the daily humiliation of blacks in the South. Sixty years later, his rhetorical strategy still works.

Within a few years, King was speaking of the “structural racism” that infects every aspect of black life in America. Weeping over riot-torn cities, he condemned the social and economic conditions that made riots inevitable. He quit calling the nation back to its ideals because the ideals themselves were tainted by racism. In a sermon at Ebenezer, he angrily advised his congregation not to celebrate the approaching bicentennial because “it’s not your country.” In an essay published after his death, he complained of “an aggressively hostile police environment.” In words that could have been written in 2015, he continues: “[P]olice must cease being occupation troops in the ghetto and start protecting its residents. Yet very few cities have really faced up to this problem and tried to do something about it. It is the most abrasive element in Negro-white relations. ...”

It is the angry prophet who would have raged and wept his way through the violence of our days. For all his  talk of love, King was known—and hated—for the relentlessness of his campaigns. He did not believe in “timing.” He never relinquished what he called “the fierce urgency of now.” In the same posthumously published essay, he wrote, “I am not sad that black Americans are rebelling; this was not only inevitable but eminently desirable.”

 The current movement is deeply indebted to King’s moral and religious vision. Theologically, he set the bar high. He gave us something to live up to, and so far we haven’t done it. Precisely because racism has proven so adaptive to new situations, King’s transcending word is necessary, for it not only demands new (albeit elusive) laws but believes in the possibility of new people who will take the law to heart.

What language will the revolution speak? What role will Christ’s people play? In King’s day the religious situation in American was neatly summarized by Will Herberg’s bestselling book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew. Everyone knows that religion in America has become more complicated. But social change does not cancel the need for the prophet’s witness, but invites it. The word of God will remain, though not as the dominant “script” in a pluralist nation. It will discover its freedom, as King did, by burning its bridges to political power and becoming what it once was: testimony. As always, it will be a voice crying in the wilderness.

---ed. note: This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of DIVINITY magazine.