Many people who have no belief in God at all are passionately committed to racial justice. So do we need Christianity today to realize Martin Luther King’s dream, or is it just a matter of historical interest that he was so shaped by his Christian faith?
It’s undeniable that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King tied his own vision and purpose for fighting for equity and justice – not just for the poor and African Americans, but for the oppressed throughout the world – to his understanding of the true meaning of Christianity and the ministry of Jesus Christ. In his April 4, 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam” he states:
“My calling takes me beyond national allegiances…. I have yet to live up to the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking again the war (Vietnam). Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men…for their children and ours, for black and white for revolutionary or conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? As a faithful minister of this one, can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?”
Later in the same speech, he says:
“Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood. Because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned, especially for His suffering and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them. …. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls “enemy”, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence: when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”
King’s commitment to nonviolence is inextricably tied to his faith and trust in God. It is not just a moral stance or a higher ground. Because of his faith, he fundamentally believed in the effectiveness of nonviolence for reconciliation. As he said: “We have a choice today: Nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.”
“This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man.”
For King, nonviolent resistance would ultimately win the day because the Creator of the universe had set that as the model for human flourishing and decreed that love was stronger than hatred. If we remove the faith-foundations of King’s beliefs, we can pursue non-violent resistance, but we must do so without the ultimate conviction that love will triumph.
In spite of the failure of many Christian leaders of the time to stand up for racial equality, as King looked at America in the 1960 he saw the need for more true Christianity, not less: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.””
This truth of the equality of all human beings is foundational not just to America’s aspirations for a just society but also to the international human rights movement. Historically, its origins were Judeo-Christian, and we only have to turn on the news to be reminded that many belief systems – religious and secular – do not uphold the fundamental equality of all human beings.
So what does it look like to live out the true meaning of our nation’s creed of human beings being created equal? King put it like this:
“We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly bring the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. … true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Jesus gave King the model for a person-oriented society as he seeks to meet each individual where they are, to understand the content of their heart, and bring forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus gave King his model for nonviolent resistance, love of enemies, and the ultimate victory of love over hatred. So why does Christianity have such a bad press in most modern universities?
When I say I am a Christian, especially around my colleagues at Harvard, it often conjures up a certain view of who I must be — a view that some find at odds with how they see me professionally. Saying I am a Christian suggests to my colleagues that I am close-minded, anti-education, homophobic, and a bit xenophobic and judgmental. These are views that are often promulgated in the media and there are certainly people who call themselves Christians who believe and exercise these practices.
As a professor of education, it would be very hard for me to be anti-education. As a researcher, I tried very hard not to be closed-minded or judgmental. My professional focus on cultural beliefs and human development make it very hard for me to be homophobic or xenophobic. But, still I am a Christian. And in fact, I believe that my Christian faith is not in tension with the drive to love people who are different from me, but actually true Christianity demands that I commit myself to loving those who are different from me.
Jesus didn’t force anyone to convert to Christianity. He modeled compassion and expressed how we should love one another.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Matt 5:43-44)
Jesus engaged those who were disenfranchised and humble. He grieved when things weren’t right, when people’s potential was not realized. He didn’t place blame for the past, but gave vision for a better future.
True Christianity results in unconditional love for those around us. The Christian understanding that we are each created in the image of God means that we see others as equally good and deserving as our selves and our differences reflecting fuller understanding of who God is. It is easier to treat each other fairly and compassionately when we see each other as made in the image of God and each reflecting part of who God is.
But, we must separate true Christianity from its manifestation within any single cultural, political or government structure.
Christianity did not originate within in single governmental structure. Some first-century Jews hoped that Christ would solve their political problems with Rome, that there would be a war, that Jesus and his followers would win and – perhaps from positions of power – they might rule over others. But, Christ had a larger vision of salvation than that. Christ called his disciples to something greater and broader than their own political ideas. With regard to their political aspirations, the disciplines were sorely disappointed and disillusioned.
Jesus challenged the religious rulers of the day to be more compassionate and less legalistic. He challenged the first disciplines (Jews—whose identity was wrapped up in exclusivity—the chosen people) to be inclusive and to embrace foreigners (e.g., Samaritans), the poor, the needy, the sick, the outcasts.
However, since then, perhaps beginning with Constantine who made Christianity the religion of the empire in the 4th century, Christianity and the expressions of Christianity have become intertwined with political power. With that comes political oppression and not long before such oppression comes in the name of Christianity: colonization; oppression; genocide; cultural destruction. For many, expressions of Christianity have become inextricably tied to western cultural patterns. So much so that some believe that to become Christian one must become “Western.” But this is a terrible misconception. Christianity originated not in the West but in the Middle East and from the first, Christianity was an emphatically multi-cultural movement. The first African convert to Christianity is recorded in the book of Acts in the New Testament, which chronicles the earliest years of the church after Jesus’s death and resurrection. Indeed, the New Testament as a whole emphasizes again and again the multicultural multiethnic nature of the Christian church. The apostle Paul described the church like this: “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all (Col.3.11)”. And in the last book of the Bible, there is a vision of the final state of the church as a “great crowd, who no one could number, from every tribe and language and nation” worshipping Jesus.” (Revelation 7:9)
It was not Jesus’ goal or the true purpose of Christianity to make us all alike culturally. Indeed we should be culturally diverse in our expressions of Christianity. And that is what we see today in the global church. Christianity is the most widespread global belief system – representing almost a third of the world’s population – and including more Chinese, Africans and South Americans than North Americans and Europeans.
So why is Christianity so embracing of different cultures, ethnicities and people groups? Whereas many faiths express the essential value of love and compassion, Jesus exemplified this differently. He exemplified it by being willing to die both for his “friends” and for his enemies. His death and ultimate resurrection might offer peace and reconcile us to each other and to God. He demonstrated the signs and miracles to confirm who is was and he did something completely different from what we expect. He chose to die our of love for his enemies.
From my research on understanding ethnic differences in worldviews, especially through differences in parenting beliefs, we can see how world views are socialized, how they come to “feel” universal, natural, and inherent. When they do, our tendency is to see ourselves as “normal” and differences as deficits. This is in part how Western and culturally dominant expressions of Christianity that oppress rather than love become confused and intertwined with our understanding of true Christianity.
The goal of socialization is to train children in the ways, beliefs and values of society so tightly that they become their point of reality. The more internalized the cultures goals and beliefs, the more seamlessly the individual fits within the society and the better adjusted and more successful they are in the society. This socialization begins immediately and our own parenting practices carefully and implicitly socialize these values. Because our beliefs systems are so deep and color so completely our views and interpretations of the world, it is easy to judge those who are different from us. But Jesus encourages us to have compassion for those who are different and to embrace and love our enemies. It is only through this compassion and love that we can achieve justice and equity.
MLK and true Christianity charge us to embrace who are different from us in ways that we are not inclined to do so under normal circumstances. Is there a worldview that offers a better foundation for this than the model of Jesus, who helps us trust that we can embrace those who persecute us and, through humility and love, change the hearts of people? Perhaps, but I haven’t seen it.
Nancy Hill is a developmental psychologist and a Professor of Education at Harvard School of Education. This article is a transcript of a talk given by Prof. Hill at The Veritas Forum at Boston College.