Church mattered to Dr King. He often reminded his church of its responsibilities to the international community. “The Church,” said he, “should teach a worldview; make it clear that racial segregation is morally evil; expose the thought of segregation in thought and life; open channels of communication between races, and develop better programmes for racial justice and other social causes.”
He also believed that the Church should become a major asset – indeed an indispensable vehicle – in the global war on poverty and economic injustice. For King, the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:29-37 provides a model for how the Church should relate to wider society. King argued that the Samaritan should be a reminder of how Christians might remove the cataracts of provincialism from our spiritual eyes, and see all people as people created in the image of God.
As a Baptist minister, catapulted to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, ecumenism mattered to King. Consistent with his Baptist roots, King brought ecumenism into ‘the public square’. The Civil Rights Movement became a visible expression of active unity, bringing together voices from a range of denominations each committed to advocacy. Cooperative church and interfaith activism became his rallying cry, taking precedence over the creeds, labels and traditions that divided those involved. “The greatest ecumenical council the world has ever known” is how King described his movement for transformative justice.
Fifty years after his death – an anniversary marked by the world on April 4th – I’m struck by how often theologies also mattered to King. His was a theology committed to the struggle to transform the world for good, as well as a willingness to sacrifice his life in the quest for justice for the oppressed. Meaning, the concrete problems of the community must be grist for the theological mill. Matters concerning Black and gender oppression, poverty and class dislocation should not be located on the periphery of theological discourse, but at the very heart of theological attention – where it matters, King would argue. Statements like: “In a real sense, all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be, until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be, until I am what I ought to be” were just some of the words, penned by King while in the jail in Birmingham, succinctly embodying his theological emphasis and brilliance.
Among the many issues that mattered to King, the coming Kingdom – which he saw as a new social order – or a global ‘beloved community’ mattered most. Small wonder that in his last years he turned to issues of poverty and peace, setting a new standard for church-based social activism. Fifty years after his death, his legacy continues. His commitment to church, global advocacy, ecumenism in the public square, underpinned by a Black liberation theology, are concerns that should not only matter to some but all.
I can’t dispute that the rise of Obama to President was yet another of King’s legacies. What is often forgotten is that movements like Black Lives Matter, Me Too and Woke should also be attributed to King. These too should be regarded as tangible outcomes of the great man’s legacy. The mentioned movements comprised of a bottom-up approach – each of them so incensed with the personal and collective violation, the bearers of the image of God mustered strength to counter the injustice that sought to silence their voices.
Concerning the mentioned movements, they started slowly: one person’s voice finds an ally in another voice, the two voices morphing into one, the replication of this process eventually producing a litany of voices singing from the same hymn sheet. A movement, with the objective of bringing hope to the masses, is born. This was the case with the Civil Rights Movement. The influence of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Lyndon Johnson and John F Kennedy – along with years of demonstrations and sittings – created a political crescendo ultimately leading to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The voices of the many were heeded too.
Even though I am in no doubt that the passing of this bill was also down to King’s and Johnson’s political adeptness, we cannot be oblivious to the activity of God in the events that led to the movement towards equality for African Americans. God was committed and involved in the changing of the race landscape supporting the human struggle in shifting these tectonic plates. Fifty years after King’s death, I do wonder what God thinks about the state of Black lives. What does God think about the recent surge in knife crimes? And what would King say about this growing concern and challenge too? King’s theological emphasis on ‘somebodyness’ was an essential component in his theology and praxis. Through his rhetoric, he implored Black people to respect and dignify their humanity. He called on Black African Americans to see themselves as ‘somebodies’, and treat others as ‘somebodies.’
The stuff taking place on the streets today is a far cry from King’s theology and practice. Whatever the causes of this problem are, the fact remains the Church needs to find ways of dignifying the humanity of young Black bodies, by creating environments conducive for Black ‘somebodies’ to assume their rightful position in a world that is often hostile to them.