April 4, 2018, marks fifty years since news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination upended American politics and set the nation’s cities ablaze with riots. To the two-thirds of Americans who weren’t yet born in 1968, including myself, this event seems like the distant past: nearer than the Civil War, maybe, but still just history.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” wrote William Faulkner in a much-quoted line. The thing is, in regard to this chapter of America’s story, Faulkner’s dictum is true. King matters too much to be abandoned to dutiful documentaries and corporate wokeness campaigns.
It was King’s friend Abraham Joshua Heschel who, in a speech ten days before King’s death, publicly proclaimed King to be America’s prophet: “Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us.” Coming from one of the twentieth century’s preeminent rabbis and a world-class biblical scholar, this is powerful language.
Or, from another perspective, it’s embarrassing – the unseemly lionizing of a flawed man, one with his own set of personal sins and leadership mistakes. Such criticism of King was common already in his lifetime, even among his allies. (Not to mention among his many opponents: in his last years, Americans overwhelmingly disapproved of him.) Recent scholarship has highlighted the contributions of the civil rights movement’s other leaders and countless grassroots organizers, many of them women activists who never received the respect they were due. This egalitarian impulse, though right and necessary, also has another face. Contemporary culture, with its leveling urge, does not suffer heroes gladly; it eyes any supposedly great person with knee-jerk suspicion.
This issue of Plough takes the opposite approach. What if Heschel’s words about King are true? What if this name-branded, oft-sanitized, Super-Bowl-ad-commercialized, National-Mall-memorialized preacher from Atlanta … is a prophet whose message America has yet to fully reckon with?
“Prophet” is an undemocratic title. We the people can elect legislators and presidents. But God sends us the prophets we need without consulting us. We have no choice but to listen to the fullness of their message, both the comforting and the terrifying. At our own peril we mute those words that disturb the favored pieties of our political, ethnic, or religious tribe.
King’s message offers ample opportunities for offense to both left and right. That is because it is so close in spirit to what Jesus taught and how he lived. King’s attack on white supremacy, for example, springs not from some secular theory of human rights but from a truth at the core of Jewish and Christian faith: that each human being is created in the image of God. Racism, or any system that judges some humans as inferior, amounts to blasphemy.
King heroically lived out the power of love.
Today, King’s prophetic clarity about the sacredness of each human being cuts across partisan lines. He shows why white supremacy remains so dangerous, and why there is an absolute right and wrong in how a nation treats refugees and immigrants. He demonstrates that Jesus’ nonviolence and love of neighbor can and should be taken literally, even in international affairs. Taken consistently, his message demands that we protect each human life as inviolable, whether that life belongs to an unborn child, to one of the 2.3 million people behind bars in US prisons and jails, or to a military veteran burdened by traumatic memories.
It’s this prophetic clarity, and the persistence of the evils he confronted, that keep King’s words fresh long after the skirmishes of the 1960s civil rights struggle. Like the oracles of the Hebrew prophets whom King loved to quote, they speak into today’s circumstances with stark immediacy.
Of course, King’s message is not beyond criticism and correction. The Rauschenbusch-influenced social gospel, which inspired a generation of young idealists in the 1960s, seems creaky a half-century later. King tended to speak of America as if its vocation were that of the church of Jesus Christ instead of that of a mere political body. At times he came close to equating the advance of the kingdom of God with the expansion of federal social programs and civil rights laws, deploying the Bible’s language about the age to come as a kind of poetic allegory for national renewal. His vision remains most potent where he hews to the New Testament original, which promises not just social improvement but a new heaven and a new earth. There’s an irony in the way social-democratic Christianity, in seeking to apply the gospel as bread-and-butter policy, ends up spiritualizing away the early Christians’ most revolutionary claim: that a real flesh-and-blood new creation is coming in which the oppressed will be vindicated, the dead will rise bodily, and all tears will be dried.
None of these objections stopped my grandfather J. Heinrich Arnold, a Bruderhof pastor in the 1960s, from leading the community he was part of to throw its support behind King’s movement. “Dr. King is a prophetic voice,” he would often say – a line I heard constantly while growing up. To him, it didn’t matter that King’s voter registration drives meshed uneasily with his own strong Anabaptist convictions on nonparticipation in government (he refused to vote himself). He arranged for Bruderhof members to march with King, and personally responded to King’s call to US clergy to join him protesting in Alabama in the summer of 1965. Having experienced the rise of Nazi anti-Semitism in Germany as a young man, he was passionately committed to King’s movement for racial justice.
For my grandfather, the decisive thing was that King was heroically living out the power of love – that unlimited, outward-flowing, unconditional love that the New Testament calls agape. This is the love that Jesus taught by commanding that we love even our enemies: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:44–45). This agape gripped King – and led to his completely predictable death at age thirty-nine, leaving behind a wife and children ages twelve, ten, seven, and five.
King was living proof that the agape Jesus taught, including his command to “turn the other cheek,” is not just an impractical ethical rule that applies only between individuals. Agape is the strongest force in human life, and it should guide us in all aspects of life, including the social, economic, and political. Far from being an individualistic love, it creates and sustains community. As King wrote in 1957:
Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it….
The cross is the eternal expression of the length to which God will go in order to restore broken community. The resurrection is a symbol of God’s triumph over all the forces that seek to block community. The Holy Spirit is the continuing community creating reality that moves through history….
If I meet hate with hate, I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community.
This agape gives rise to the “beloved community” that King so often held out as the goal of his movement. King borrowed the term from the philosopher Josiah Royce. But unlike Royce, for King the beloved community was defined in terms of Jesus’ cross and his resurrection, which exclude no one: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).
In the light of King’s lived witness to the heart of the gospel, huge swathes of what has passed for Christianity over the last two millennia are shown to have missed the main point. That’s why we still need King as a prophet, not only for America but for the world.