Wednesday, Apr. 4, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, April 4th, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is the Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
50 years ago today, history turned on a mere moment as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN
Sometimes history seems to turn on a mirror moment and one of those moments took place 50 years ago today. On April four, 1968, a shot rang out in Memphis, Tennessee killing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr then officially the head of the southern Christian leadership conference, but more importantly, the most powerful and influential Civil Rights Leader of the twentieth century in the United States. Dr. King had gone to Memphis in order to encourage and to further organize sanitation workers in the city who were then undertaking a labor action. His assassin was later identified as James Earl Ray, a man who was already a fugitive from justice and someone who was wanted in order to return him to prison. Associated with white supremacy, James Earl old way would be convicted of the assassination. He would die in prison almost 20 years ago. As we will have reason to note at many points this year, 1968 was one of the most tumultuous in all of American history.
It was the season of political assassination, not only with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but also just a short time later that same year, the assassination of the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, former attorney general and senator Robert F. Kennedy. But when King found himself in Memphis there in April of 1968, he went in order to deliver a speech to the sanitation workers. It was delivered the night before his assassination. In that speech, he famously had said, "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life, but I'm not concerned with that now. I just want to do God's will and he's allowed me to go up to the mountain and I've looked over and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land." It was just a matter of less than 24 hours later that King would be dead by the assassin's bullet.
At the time of his death, Martin Luther King Jr was only 39 years old. He was already a world figure. He had already become the youngest man ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He was a product of the African American church in the United States. His father was a well-known black preacher, known after King's own familiarity as “Daddy King.” “Daddy King” was pastor for decades of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. And King himself as a boy grew up in the midst of brutal and evil racial segregation, legalized racial segregation that was true not only in the south but elsewhere in the country as well. When he was born, he was named Michael King after his father, but during his boyhood, his father renamed both his son and himself, Martin Luther King and Martin Luther King Jr. in honor of Martin Luther, the Great Protestant reformer of the sixteenth century.
Though a name certainly does not always mean destiny. It's hard to imagine that the name Michael King Jr. would have the same resonance as the name Martin Luther King Jr. As a young man, he attended Morehouse College, one of the most famous historically black colleges, and during the time at the college he experienced what he later identified as a call to ministry, which in his terms using the words that he expressed at the time, he had perceived a non-emotional call to serve humanity.
He then went to Crozer Theological Seminary in the Northeast and later received his Ph.D. degree from Boston University. One of the most significant facts to remember about Dr. King's theological education is that he went to northern largely white institutions. Both of the institutions, Crozer Theological Seminary, as it was known then, and Boston university from which he received his doctorate, were steeped in liberal Protestantism in liberal theology. One of the historical explanations for why king had attended those schools was that he would have been far less welcome, if even legally allowed to attend many of the institutions in the south. He went to the northeast also however, because it was clear that as a young man, he was looking for an alternative set of influences in a hospitable intellectual culture. He found that in liberal Protestantism during the time that he was at seminary and later undertaking his doctoral studies. He came to be greatly influenced by figures including Walter Rauschenbusch, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and then later Mahatma Gandhi.
Walter Rauschenbusch was a famous Baptist liberal who became the founder of what became known as the Social Gospel Movement. Rauschenbusch redefined the gospel, turning it from the centrality of conversion by the atonement of Christ to the social significance of Christianity as a movement of liberation and social change. Paul Tillich, a German immigrate to the United States who taught at union theological seminary, was himself in most ways post-Christian. He was decidedly liberal in his theology, transforming the categories of Christian doctrine into mostly symbolic terms. Reinhold Niebuhr was a different figure even though he also taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Niebuhr's influence on Martin Luther King Jr was to make him very aware of what Niebuhr called 'Christian Realism'. It was the understanding of the structures of sin and oppression in society and an explanation deeply rooted in Christian theology of why those structural manifestations of sin were so difficult to overcome.
Unlike some of the other influences in King's life, Niebuhr who famously argued for intervention in World War Two over against his pacifist theologian brother Richard Niebuhr. Reinhold Niebuhr argued that at times power had to be wielded in order to bring about social change for justice and the improvement of humanity. That was a form of Christian Realism that ended up having massive influence on Martin Luther King in the course of his life. The fourth figure mentioned that came into his life during this age as an influence was not a Christian at all, but Mahatma Gandhi. He of course, was the leader of non-violent resistance in India. A combination of all of these influences, plus the powerful language of justice of the biblical prophets in the Old Testament, came together in King's messages. In 1954, he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
He was there just before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on the bus, beginning the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King became the leader of the Montgomery improvement association and he was catapulted into national fame as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Later, he would join his father and succeed his father as pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He assumed that role in 1960. It's important for me to note that in 1961, King spoke at the chapel of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. On the 16th of April, 1963, King released one of his most influential writings entitled, 'Letter from Birmingham jail'. One of the most important issues for evangelicals to remember thinking of that text is the fact that King used the very words of Jesus and the prophets of the old testament as he was writing to his fellow clergymen there in Birmingham, Alabama, to convince them of the evil of segregation and of the fact that what many are calling for as a very long term peaceful form of change was actually no change at all and it certainly was not justice.
Later that year, on August the 28th of 1963, King gave his most famous or ration as he participated and spoke to the March on Washington. He famously spoke to the crowd and to the nation when he said, "I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream." Dr. King spoke of a dream, "That one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood." More personally King then said, "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today", said Dr. King.
The timeline of Dr. King's life would remind us of his origins and his incubation in the Black Church in the United States and in its piety. Then his move to the northeast for theological education coming under the influence of theological liberalism. Then the influence of Mahatma Gandhi with the idea of nonviolent resistance. Then his experience as a pastor in Montgomery, later in Atlanta. By the time King arrived at the second half of the 1960s, a decade that he would now as we know, not survive. He had made several transitions and one of those transitions was to the political left. King had become convinced that racism was inextricably linked to poverty and to other forms of oppression. Thus, racism would never be overcome unless other forms of injustice were simultaneously overcome. He had also become very suspicious of the American war in Vietnam and he had come to see American Imperialism as he styled it as the same kind of malevolent force in the world as previous forms of European Imperialism.
But it's also vital to understand the king in his context and here to understand that one of the debts this nation owes to king is that he had a very great deal to do personally with restraining the kind of violence that otherwise would clearly have broken out in America. King in this sense was a moderating force, so much so that some on the left of the civil rights movement considered him a hopeless accommodationist. By 1967, King had come to a deeper understanding of just how entrenched white supremacy had become in the United States. In a document he wrote entitled, 'Where do we go from here? Chaos or Community', King said this, "Negroes have proceeded from a premise that equality means what it says, and they have taken white Americans at their word when they talked of it as an objective. But most whites in America, he wrote proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement.
White America, he said, is not even psychologically organized to close the gap. Essentially it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious, but in most respects to retain it."
Theology and the racial crisis, then and now
For Christians trying to understand the historical significance of a figure like Martin Luther King Jr. We have to bring all the tools of historical evaluation to the fore. We have to understand the man in his time. We have to understand the crucial role that a singular individual can play on the world scene and some of the great moral affairs of humanity. We also as Christians, however, must think in a providential understanding of history. History according to the biblical worldview is not just one event after another, it is an unfolding story of God's involvement with humanity. And as God is sovereign and his providence is meticulous, we have to understand the events as they unfold, seeking to see what the lord would have us to understand.
When we look at Martin Luther King Jr, this raises a host of difficult questions for the Christian. How do we understand someone whose message was so deeply biblical, so profoundly true, so prophetic, and so biblically resonant? How do we understand the man whose time had clearly matched his message? How do we understand the message and the messenger? How do we understand King's influence of liberal Protestantism and the fact that he held to a fairly liberal theology over against the fact that he turned again and again to the Scriptures in order to find there, the moral grounding for the moral cause that he lead? How do we consider his prophetic voice to the nation and put that in the context of understanding this was exactly the message that the United States needed to hear on civil rights at the moment? But we are kept in a biblical worldview from understanding any single human being, regardless of time, regardless of situation, as heroic in the sense that we want to see heroes.
The ancient Greeks understood this. When you come to Martin Luther King Jr, you're looking at someone who raises a host of questions not only theologically but morally as well, with well documented moral failings in his life documented over and over again. The Greeks did have an understanding. Their understanding was this, the essential fragility and frailty of every human hero. But the biblical world view doesn't stop there. The biblical understanding of sin and sinfulness reminds us that ultimately, not only according to the Scripture, is every human hero deeply flawed and essentially frailed, but according to the biblical worldview, there really are no human heroes in that sense at all. Only God, only Christ is revealed to be truly heroic. This means that we should look to Martin Luther King Jr no differently than we would look to any other major historical figure. We should look at them in all that they represent, in all that can be known about them.
We need to make every rightful moral evaluation, but when it comes to Dr. King, when we think about the events 50 years ago today in the larger context of his life, we come to understand that for the cause of love and justice in this society, Martin Luther King Jr played an absolutely crucial and essential role. We cannot look at his speeches on civil rights, his prophetic words against racial segregation, his indictment of white supremacy, without understanding that there is deep biblical truth in what he said. Beyond that, his message would actually have had no moral foundations without the absolute truthfulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the authority of the word of God. Here we come to understand that, that message, even with its biblical authority, shined through and reached much of the nation's conscience, reaching it urgently even now through the message and through the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
America still has so far to go. That has been made painfully and abundantly clear even in recent years. There were those who 50 years ago believed that the Civil Rights Movement had largely one racial equality, but of course we know that was not hardly the case. And we're looking at the fact that this has become, once again such a politicized issue, that even the historical figure and the historical reality, the message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr has been in danger for the last 50 years of being co-opted both by the political left and by the political right. This is a temptation that Christians, thinking according to Scripture cannot allow ourselves the luxury of indulging. We cannot co-opt the man nor can we understand the man outside his historical reality and his historical context. But here is where the Christian understands the message must be taken on its own terms and measured according to whether or not it fits the truth, the biblical truth, the gospel truth.
And thus, we understand that the prophetic message of Martin Luther King Jr on the issues of race and the justice and love that, that message is as urgently needed in the United States in 2018 as it was in 1968. And the message needs to be heard now just as urgently, if not more so than when his voice was stilled 50 years ago today.
Why it’s significant that the BBC religion editor recognizes there is more to Easter than chocolate
But next as we've been thinking about the intersection of the major media and theological issues with Easter being the catalyst to this time of the year, I want to turn to an article by and about Martin Bashir. He is the fairly recently appointed religion editor of the BBC. That's the British Broadcasting Corporation, one of the most influential widespread and venerable media outlets around the world.
Martin Bashir maybe known to many Americans because of his famous or infamous interviews with Michael Jackson at his Neverland ranch. But during the time of his adult years, Bashir has become a Christian and as a Christian, he is now the religion editor at the BBC. In an article about his Christianity, his conversion and his role in the media, Bashir points to some essential theological issues, which are often as we have seen on the briefing hidden behind the headlines. He speaks, for instance, of the Imago Dei. Bashir writes, "Interestingly, Judeo Christian writing offers an important principle known by the ancients as Imago Dei. It is the belief that each individual is made in the image of god regardless of status, wealth, achievement or social standing." Now in this piece that was published at radio times, Bashir is speaking of the image of God using the Latin phrase, Imago Dei, and he's explaining it to an audience he knows does not understand the concept. But insightfully, Bashir grounds the very understanding of the human creature made in the image of god when he points to current issues that are in the headlines and historic issues such as the fight against slavery.
Bashir writes, speaking of the image of God. "It's the principle that lead William Wilberforce, a politician of deep faith, to fight against slavery in the early nineteenth century. The Imago Dei, he says, has shaped countless causes over the centuries and it comes from the pages of Scripture. Our worldview or belief, if you prefer, he writes, shapes everything from how we parent our children to how we die. And religion he says, plays a formative role in this area." Now what's really important here is to recognize that Bashir, the religion editor of the BBC is here apparently trying to convince a secular audience that there might be a role for religion in the BBC, not to mention a religion editor, and that theology has played an important role in the headlines then and now.
But concerning the now, Bashir then turns to write this. "It's worth pointing out since the BBC also provides content for the world service that declining religious affiliation in Britain is not shared around the globe." He goes on to say, "evidently in some places around the globe, religion still plays a very major part." Insinuating that secular people in the west and perhaps Britain in particular, seemed to be blissfully unaware of the fact that most people around the world are not unbelievers. In one of the most interesting statements in the piece, Bashir says that people including listeners to the BBC quote, are interested in moral questions but are living in a less structured moral environment." That's a rather soft, perhaps even kind or indirect way of saying that people in western nations these days are trying to have moral conversations, but without a biblical background. Without any kind of coherent biblical or ethical world view.
And just in case we were wondering what he's talking about. Bashir goes on to write, "So while previous generations may have considered the possibility of fetal screening or physician assisted suicide to the prism of a religion ..." I'll simply interject there. He's talking about Christianity. Bashir went on to say, "Many now ask exactly the same question, but without the resources of theology." Bashir here is quite accurately pointing to the sterility and the instability of any kind of moral reasoning or moral discussion in a truly secular age. In the essay Martin Bashir went on to describe the kind of coverage that listeners could expect from the BBC, including the fact that at Easter of all things, the BBC would report on what Christians believe. "Across all our platforms we'll be reporting what these leaders have to say as Christians around the world celebrate what they believe happened to Christ during that final week of his life. That he was crucified, died, and was then raised from the dead."
He went on to say, "The Christian faith speaks of Christ's death on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for all our sin and wrong doing, and in his resurrection the opportunity to start again. Now that's of course not all we would want to say, about the cross and resurrection of the lord Jesus Christ, but for the BBC, that is a very significant content of theology. And by the way, the subhead in the article after the headline, BBC's Religion Editor Martin Bashir on why Christianity is still relevant this Easter. The subhead is this. Bashir describes his conversion to Christianity and why Easter isn't just about chocolate. Well, it might not sound like much for Martin Bashir at the BBC to be Religion Editor and to explain that Easter is about far more than chocolate, but for the BBC, given our secular age, it's a rather significant new start. Over time, we'll see just how much difference that makes or does not make in the world service of the BBC.
Thanks for listening to the Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Destin, Florida, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for the Briefing.