The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, January 17, 2022

It’s Monday, January 17th, 2022.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Why Is There An MLK Jr. Day, and What Is Its Significance?

Today is known as Martin Luther King Jr Day in the United States. After years of attempting to make this a national holiday, it actually became one in the year 1983, when then President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday is actually on January the 15th. He was born in the year 1929 on that date. But given The Uniform Monday Holiday Act passed by Congress, that took effect in 1971, Martin Luther King Jr Day, like several other holidays, is observed on the Monday closest to the particular date of historic meaning. But nonetheless, it is really interesting to note that from time to time, we need to go back and ask some basic questions like, why? What’s going on here? Why is there such a national holiday and what is its meaning?

Well, for one thing, Martin Luther King Jr, who was 39 when he was assassinated in 1968, he has gone down in American history as one of the most significant figures of the 20th century. There are huge worldview issues that are involved in asking questions about Martin Luther King Jr Day and about the man. But it’s important for Christians to ask some questions that go even deeper than the questions the world might ask. When the world thinks of Martin Luther King Jr, they think primarily the battle for civil rights during the 20th century, particularly in the last half of the 20th century. And frankly for most Americans, including most American Christians, it is almost morally impossible to get back into the situation, especially in the first decades or even the first half and more, when it came to legal, even required racial segregation in the United States. It’s even difficult for our imagination to go back to that situation and understand the America that was known then and the America that was confronted by the Civil Rights Movement.

Like any other major movement, the Civil Rights Movement was mixed in terms of its character. Even the individuals who played such big roles on the canvas of history. There were civil rights leaders, there were African American or Black civil rights leaders long before Martin Luther King Jr. But the reason that Martin Luther King Jr came to symbolize the entire movement is because he basically held the central moral leadership of that movement at the very moment he was assassinated in the year 1968. But in order to understand King, we need to deeper. And there’s some huge theological issues. Some issues involved in American church history and the Christian history of the United States that we need to think about.

For one thing, Martin Luther King Jr was a product of the Black church. He was named of course Martin Luther King Jr. And that immediately points to the fact that he was named for his father who became known as Martin Luther King Sr. But what’s really interesting is that the Senior wasn’t originally named Martin Luther King. He was the pastor for decades of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He came to think about Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, and he renamed his son and himself for that Protestant Reformer. Given the importance of Atlanta just as a city and as a collection of Black churches, the posture of Atlanta, the preeminence in many ways of Atlanta in the Black community and in the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century, both Martin Luther King, Senior and Junior, would become extremely well known, but the son even far more than the father.

Part II

‘Power Has to Serve the Cause of Love’: Evaluating the Theological Influences of MLK Jr.’s and the Civil Rights Movement — And How the Theology of the BLM Movement Compares Today

But Martin Luther King Jr grew up in the home of a Black preacher. Not just when he was preaching, but even just the cadences of his conversation were greatly shaped by and influenced by the cadences of historic Black preaching in the United States. By the time Martin Luther King Jr’s voice became known to millions upon millions of Americans, it was a voice that had been trained not only by the cadences of the Black church, but also by liberal theological education in the American North, in particular Crozer Theological Seminary. But before we get to seminary, as a young man, Martin Luther King Jr had attended Morehouse College.

Now, Morehouse is and has been one of the most famous historically Black colleges in the United States. It is a Black college that at the time he was there was entirely restricted to young men and had an extremely rigorous academic and moral code. The understanding of the necessity of Morehouse College was that it would produce not just Black college graduates among young men, but young gentlemen, young men who could lead the Civil Rights Movement and provide leadership to the Black community in the United States, even, or you might say, especially during the incredibly difficult context of legal segregation.

But understanding Martin Luther King Jr is a challenge. He is in many ways a historical and a theological enigma. By the time he was a young man at Morehouse College, he had perceived some kind of call to ministry. But later when describing that call to ministry, he really spoke of perceiving something like a non-emotional call to serve humanity. That’s not the historic understanding of the Christian ministry. But nonetheless, in preparation for the Christian ministry, and recall the fact that at that point in American history, preachers, pastors, ministers held the preeminent leadership in the African American community, he went to Crozer Theological Seminary in the Northeast. He later, by the way, received the PhD degree from Boston University.

Now, as you think about Martin Luther King Jr’s theological education, it’s important to note that he went to Northern, largely White, and certainly white-founded, white-dominated institutions. Both of them were steeped in liberal Protestant theology. The seminary where he did his seminary degree and Boston University where he did his doctorate, both of them were basically bastions of theological liberalism. And the theological education he received at both of those levels was similarly influenced. Now there are those who have raised very interesting questions. What if Martin Luther King Jr had attended an orthodox theological seminary? Would that have made a difference? Well, certainly I would hope it would’ve made a difference. But it is also simply historically important to say that most of the historically orthodox theological seminaries, particularly in the South, would not at that time have been open to an African American student. And there is divine judgment made very clear in that fact.

As a young man, both in seminary and during the time of his doctoral work, Martin Luther King Jr was looking, and we can see that now, for something of a theological home. He was also looking for a theology that would be compatible with his political vision. He found that, not by accident, in liberal Protestantism, in its understanding of the Kingdom of God, largely divorced from the Orthodox Christology that had been the cradle background of the church. During his education, he became greatly influenced by figures, including the Baptist, Walter Rauschenbusch, also liberal theologians, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and later a non-Christian figure Mahatma Gandhi.

Now, as you are considering this, look at the name, Walter Rauschenbusch. There you’re looking at the founder, in so many ways, of what became known as the Social Gospel. Walter Rauschenbusch identified the Social Gospel in terms that transformed the atonement of Christ into a message of the social significance of Christianity as a movement of liberation and social change. Now, we just need to note something, Walter Rauschenbusch and the other founders of the Social Gospel were looking at genuine social problems that called for a Christian response. The sad thing is that Rauschenbusch and his colleagues responded by creating the so-called Social Gospel, which wasn’t the gospel of Jesus Christ. It isn’t the gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead of a movement, and we can look in retrospect, what we wish we saw in retrospect is a movement that blended together Orthodox Christian theology and an absolute and uncompromised commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ with a Christian response just to the basic level of meeting human needs and identifying with those who clearly were being crushed by all of the politics and the economics and even the legal structures of the day.

When it came to some of these other influences, to think of Paul Tillich. Tillich was himself so liberal that I don’t actually think it’s fair to refer to him as a Christian theologian. He was basically himself decidedly post-Christian. Very liberal in his theology, Tillich transformed the categories of Christian doctrine into basic symbolic terms. He was looking for some kind of Christian existentialism, and he was looking far beyond that in terms of mythology and even flirtations with all kinds of esoteric ideas. Paul Tillich was also himself revealed later to be a sexual deviant. But nonetheless, he had inordinate influence in liberal Christian theology at the midpoint of the 20th century.

Now, when it came to Reinhold Niebuhr, also at Union Theological Seminary, the paragon of theological liberalism in New York, Reinhold Niebuhr was very different than Paul Tillich. He was actually morally repulsed by Paul Tillich. But nonetheless, Reinhold Niebuhr redefined Christianity as a message of social meaning but at the expense of the historic Christian gospel. Indeed, there are students of Reinhold Niebuhr, like the students of Paul Tillich, who basically have come to the conclusion that neither one of them actually believed even in a personal God. But Reinhold Niebuhr did. And this is going to sound very ironic, but this is exactly as Niebuhr and the Niebuhrians would put it. If he didn’t believe in a personal God, he did believe in the reality of sin. And of course that’s not truly the biblical understanding of sin, but it is at least the willingness to make a moral verdict about the darkness of the human heart, and it’s over against the optimistic liberals of the 20th century who actually continued to want to speak of human goodness.

But all that to say, that of all the influences in Martin Luther King Jr’s theological life, and eventually in his Civil Rights Movement methodology, we have to look at Reinhold Niebuhr as generally the most significant. And one of the issues of significance about Reinhold Niebuhr is that Niebuhr who was definitely a man who sought peace, nonetheless disagreed even with other liberal theologians, including by the way his own brother, in arguing that at times power has to serve the cause of love. That’s a very interesting argument, but that was extremely controversial in liberal theological circles in the 20th century. It was largely the product of two world wars and Reinhold Niebuhr understanding that human sinfulness, or at least I would rather say in his view human evil, was deeply immovable until there was some kind of force or power.

Reinhold Niebuhr in this sense was perhaps doing more sociology than theology and given his perspective. But Martin Luther King Jr would imbibe that Niebuhrian expectation that at times power would be necessary in order to serve the cause of love. And that’s basically how he defined the Civil Rights Movement. But it’s also important to recognizing it is how he defined the Civil Rights Movement as a nonviolent movement. And that was also something that he borrowed from Mahatma Gandhi. And we don’t have time to go entirely into that background, but it is really interesting to understand that King looked at the Gandhian movement in India and saw the possibility of a similar kind of movement for the opposition to race based segregation in the United States.

Now, there’s a lot for us to look at here, but part of it simply comes down to the facts of history. The facts of history are that Martin Luther King Jr ended up pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He went there in 1954. So just keep that in mind. He was a pastor in a Black church in Montgomery in 1954. He went to that pulpit just before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on the bus, an incident that began what became known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King, a very young pastor, and as you see, fairly new pastor in a church there in that very city, Montgomery, became something of the voice for that movement, for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Later, his prominence would catapult him to succeed his father as pastor of a far more influential church, that Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He assumed that role in 1960. Now, by the way, lots of interesting things took place here. In the year 1961, Martin Luther King Jr spoke in the chapel at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was a very controversial event there in 1961, but it also tells us a great deal about the prominence that Martin Luther King Jr had already achieved as a very young pastor now in Atlanta.

About two years later, Martin Luther King Jr would be arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, and he would write perhaps the best known of his writings. It became known as Letter from Birmingham Jail. And it’s very important that evangelicals recognize that the moral logic that King used was one that used traditional biblical language. He claimed the prophetic mantle of the prophets of the Old Testament, and in that letter he used the words of Jesus. That letter was actually written not just to the general public, it was written specifically to some White pastors in the City of Birmingham. And he was writing to them about the logic of the Civil Rights Movement. He was calling on them not only to accept but to champion a process of peaceful change that would eradicate race-based segregation in the United States.

In August of that year, on August 28th, King would give his most famous oration. He spoke at the March on Washington, and there he famously spoke to that crowd saying, “I say to you today my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the movement, I still have a dream. It’s a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” King spoke famous words, including these… His hope was that one day on the red hills of Georgia, he said, “The sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.” In that same speech, he famously spoke of his own children, saying that he hoped that one day they would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

Now, let’s just pause for a moment, that has to be the right thing to say. That has to be the right thing to believe. It’s shocking to us to think that it would ever be otherwise. But it’s at least historically and theologically important for us to recognize that it was otherwise, and that there were many churches and denominations who basically gave either tacit or official support to race-based segregation. That’s a matter of shame and no doubt of God’s judgment upon those churches and denominations. It’s also important to recognize that King was speaking on that day in a way that was not universally well received in the Civil Rights Movement, because it’s important for us to recognize that movement was never singularly Martin Luther King Jr.

For one thing, there was a left wing that saw Martin Luther King Jr as far too subtle, far too slow, far too committed to nonviolence, then was possible to get the job done as they saw it. In 1968, even as that movement was fracturing in many ways, even as it had made legislative achievements but still understood itself to have a long way to go, Martin Luther King was assassinated there in Memphis as he was speaking to garbage workers who had gone on a strike. It’s also important to recognize in a horrifying way the 1968 was a season of political assassinations in the United States. It was a year that those who are now living born long after 1968, not only of course wouldn’t remember, but it’s hard for them to imagine.

Not only was Martin Luther King Jr, the most prominent civil rights activist in the United States assassinated, but so also was the man who at that point was destined to win the democratic presidential nomination. Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, who of course had been attorney general to his brother, the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated in 1963. It is important for us to recognize that even as there are many in the media right now, I think at least partly in recklessness pointing to the situation in the United States right now and wondering if the nation is going to break apart, it is at least important for us to recognize that going back to a year like 1968 should caution us from over describing the undeniable tensions of our own day.

Part III

Dealing with History As It Happened: The Responsibility of Christians in Evaluating Difficult and Complex Figures in History

But it’s also important for us to recognize that Martin Luther King Jr as a man, as a churchman, that is to say the pastor, the preacher to church, as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, he also is a difficult person for evangelical Christians to seek fully to understand. Indeed we will never fully understand him. He also presents real challenges to our understanding as we think about the morality of leadership and we think about the centrality of theology to anyone’s worldview. When it came to that theology, you’re looking at a strange and rather unfortunate mix, a mix on the negative side of liberal theology in a largely undiluted form.

You’re also, however, looking at the continuing cadences and messages of scripture, including the prophet’s messages about injustice and even a respectful use of the words of Jesus. In many cases, in a way, that even the most conservative exudes would see as quite legitimate. On the moral dimension, we also have to face the fact that there is now undeniable documentation and evidence of longstanding, very significant sexual immorality on the part of Martin Luther King Jr and at least some of his associates. I’m not going to dwell on this in detail and be salacious. I’m simply going to say that what we are talking about is moral misbehavior on a scale that just about any Orthodox biblical Christian would have to see as invalidating of that person’s claim to fitness for the Christian ministry, or even to meet the definition biblically of a Christian.

But at the same time, the influence Martin Luther King had certainly within the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement was one that was far more compatible with Christianity than most of the alternatives that he confronted. And we just need to make a very important comparison that only make sense now that would not have made sense during the lifetime of Martin Luther King Jr. When you compare the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s with the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged just in the last several years, you are looking at the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement is largely a repudiation of Martin Luther King Jr.

For one thing, it is an open repudiation of the dependence of any claim of civil rights upon Christianity. The leadership of the Civil Rights Movement was overwhelmingly almost exclusively made up of Protestant ministers, the pastors of Black churches. Leadership then in the Civil Rights Movement, including the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, they were all basically reverends. But when you look at the leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement, far more influenced by Marxism and also by critical theory, particularly critical race theory. What you see is the fact that the organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement were explicitly not only not preachers, they did not identify with biblical Christianity in any sense.

Furthermore, even as the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, as pastors were almost exclusively men, the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement were not only women but more than one of them identified as a queer woman. There are a lot of other distinctions between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter movement as we know it now. But it’s important for us to recognize, particularly as Christians, that one of our intellectual and moral responsibilities, indeed one of theological responsibilities, is to think about God’s providence in the history of our culture, in the history of our nation, in such a way that we recognize that many of the people who made a decisive impact were not persons that we would welcome as members of our churches based upon their theological positions or their moral behavior.

It’s tough to talk about this precisely because of the rightness of the basic civil rights message that Martin Luther King Jr brought in the 1960s. Even the most conservative evangelicals of today would be in basic agreement with most of what King said about his indictment negatively of the race based inequities that had occurred in the United States and of the necessity of change. A necessity of change driven by biblical concerns. There are other complications and we simply have to acknowledge these. There are complications such as asking as to whether the Martin Luther King Jr of 1968 has shifted considerably to the left in terms of his politics and his analysis of the Civil Rights Movement than that of the early and mid 1960s. There’s evidence both ways.

But nonetheless, the important thing for us to recognize is that as the United States of America now has a legal federal holiday known as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Christians can reflect upon the fact that there are persons who on the canvas of world history or in this case American history make a decisive difference and play an absolutely historic role. And when it comes to a holiday like this, they are recognized for that fact. It is really interesting right now that there are people on the right and the left who would schedule different holidays in the United States. And it’s also interesting to see that many of those people will use arguments against some of the most historic figures in American history. They would not use against others. They would not apply the same standards. This is where we as Christians have to recognize that we will never be able to untangle all the knots of history, not to mention all the knots of humanity.

Where the United States of America confronted the very same issues that Martin Luther King Jr. demanded must be confronted without the singular role of Martin Luther King Jr., that’s a question we simply can’t ask because we don’t get to go back and rewind history. This is history as it is. And honest Christians understand that that’s exactly what we must deal with, theologically, biblically, morally. With the history, that is history as it happened.

It’s also humbling to recognize that biblically-minded Christians will be struggling with some of these questions, not only long into the future, but if we’re honest, we’ll struggle with them until Jesus comes.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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