By Marty Duren
This past Monday, Jan. 17, marked the 24th year since the first official observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday. It seems some are still struggling to get it right.
This year, King’s quotations were Twittered all day as reminders of the leader’s seeming prescience regarding issues of oppression and injustice — made all the more real by the fresh images from Haiti. Many conservatives remember, with rightful mourning, legislative opposition to the holiday by those who questioned King’s marital fidelity and supposed communist sympathies.
More common in this era — more than 40 years since King was assassinated in Memphis — is for theological conservatives to praise his work in the Civil Rights Movement while questioning the theology that propelled him to it. As one pastor wrote on Twitter, “I’m thankful for MLK, and there’s much to learn from him. But friends — watch your doctrine.”
So, perhaps we should look at King’s doctrine. He was influenced by liberation theology — a system of doctrine that places great importance on social justice and reform as a part of the gospel message. Robert McAfee Brown noted, in Liberation Theology: An Introductory Guide, the three tenets of liberation theology are: (1) liberation from unjust political, economic or cultural structures that destroy people; (2) liberation from the sense that one’s station in life is foreordained and unchangeable (i.e., fate); and, (3) liberation from personal sin and guilt. Liberation theology was born in a time and place of great poverty and social injustice — Latin America in the mid-20th century — and was oft wedded to Marxist social theory.
Stanley Grenz, in The Moral Quest, wrote, “King’s commitment to social ethics was born out of his understanding of the gospel. King believed that one of God’s primary purposes is the establishment of a just economic and social order on earth” (p. 184). That the kingdoms of the world have become — or at least will become — the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ (to paraphrase both Rev. 11:15 and Handel) is in little dispute. What is continuously disputed is how and when this is to be accomplished.
The Torah includes more than 20 commands regarding treatment of the poor. Boaz blessed poor Ruth based on the requirements of that law. The Minor Prophets, without fail, speak of the judgment of God due to the failings of humanity to live justly — and it is not uncommon for those under judgment to be God’s people, the nation of Israel. Israel’s abandonment of orphans and widows and neglect of the poor are the constant, sad, themes. God’s expectation of justice in the social order and demand of righteous treatment of those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy are made both clear and straightforward by these books.
The question for us today is simple: Where does this fall as part of the gospel?
If the gospel is limited only to the eternal condition of the soul, then what is the basis of Jesus’ prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” If heaven matters but not earth, then why did Paul acknowledge taking care of the poor as something he “was eager to do” (Gal. 2:10) and lead in the collection for the needy saints in Jerusalem (II Cor. 9)? When Jesus observed, “You always have the poor with you,” it was not because the poor are unimportant, but because poverty is always with us. The poor will always be around; thus, there will always be opportunities to help them.
King’s theology was developed in a time of Jim Crow-codified segregation throughout the South — with white churches usually helping reinforce it more than battle its injustices. If King over-emphasized the social aspect of the gospel, it was in a context in which the totality of the gospel was being thoroughly ignored by those with power.
A Marxist professor once quipped, “All theology is liberation theology.” Is this not true to an extent? If theology does not liberate, can it rightly be called biblical?
Charles Wesley penned a hymn of liberation well known to most Baptists. Titled, “And Can It Be?”, its fourth stanza begins: “Long my imprisoned spirit lay/fast bound in sin and nature’s night/Thine eye diffused a quickening ray/I woke, the dungeon flamed with light/My chains fell off, my heart was free/I rose, went forth and followed Thee.”
This is a biblical theology of liberation.
If there is no liberation, there is no gospel; if there is no gospel, there is no liberation. If there is no liberation, we are yet in our sins — and the transformation of society is the least of our worries.