I think that it is vitally important for Christians today to take King seriously as a theologian, though he did not work as an academic. That is because he offers a vital challenge to the church, as well as a vision for being church in the world, that responds to immediate social problems and needs. I may later write on King's ecclesiology, his understanding of the church. But, for now, the three I've already written are good enough, and will be posted here in this series.
This first post is a response to the question, "Who do you think had the biggest influence on the development of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s thought?"]
Paul Tillich is not the obvious choice for the biggest influence on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and thought. In all honesty, he may not even be the best choice. The contributions of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau, and Howard Thurman to the development of King’s ethics, of Anders Nygren to the development of King’s understanding of Agape love, and of Personalist thinkers like George Washington Davis, L. Harold DeWolf, and Edgar S. Brightman to King’s understanding of the nature and concerns of God are invaluable. But, because of both the timing and the nature of Tillich’s influence on King, he is my choice.
One of Dr. King’s most significant contributions is his understanding and application of what he called “the love ethic of Jesus.” Yet, as John J. Ansbro narrates it, there was a time in the young King’s life when he despaired altogether of the political power and efficacy of Christian love.
While a student a Crozer Theological Seminary, King encountered Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals and The Will to Power. Nietzsche’s harsh criticism of Christian ethics, which he viewed as “a glorification of weakness” that kept the oppressed in perpetual servitude and denied them their natural drive to power, to self-affirmation, shook King’s faith in the political power of love. He was forced by his own intellectual honesty, in the face of Nietzsche’s critique, to conclude that the love ethic of Jesus “is effective only in conflicts among individuals, but is not useful in resolving conflicts among racial groups and nations."
Love, in other words, stood for King in opposition to power. It lacked the political potency to transform human society. And given how Jesus’ message had been long twisted by dominant classes to be a message of non-resistance, the only shock may be that it took an encounter with Nietzsche for the young King to conclude that an ethic long twisted by oppressors could not be an effective tool for resisting oppression.
Much has rightly been made of Gandhi’s role in changing King’s understanding of love. Gandhi’s Satyagraha is at least in part a political application of Jesus’ ethic of love. The influence both of Gandhi’s powerful articulation of the potency of this love for enemies that strives to resist evil with love and its practical application in both South Africa and India cannot be understated. But it should also be noted that, as a Christian minister and theologian, King needed a distinctly Christian voice to reinforce Gandhi’s understanding of the political power of the love ethic of Jesus. His encounter with the writings of a German political philosopher turned systematic theologian, Paul Tillich, began to meet this need.
Tillich’s ontology has, Ronald Stone notes, been used by King and other “Christian spokesmen for… minorities” to advocate for “groups with only limited access to the structures of power,” who “continue to be denied their full right to be.” This powerful and faithfully Christian call to embody the “courage to be” stands in sharp contrast to Nietzsche’s criticism of Christian ethics. But it was Tillich’s articulation of the relationship between love, power, and justice that most influenced King.
In Love, Power, and Justice Tillich makes a distinction between eros, philia, and agape; a distinction, made also by Anders Nygren, that was very important for King. In it, he also seeks to articulate and reconcile what he calls “the tension between love and power.” The key to this is found in the very nature of God, being-itself and the ground of all being. God’s nature as the “ultimate reality, the really real” means that all concepts of love and power ultimately participate in, correspond to, and find whatever reality they possess in divine love and divine power. And, in God, love, power, and justice are ultimately one.
This unity of love, power, and justice changes the way that we think about love and power. It has, not surprisingly, powerful political implications, and stands as a sharp challenge to Nietzsche’s understanding of Christian ethics as “slave ethics.” If love and power are, in Christian theology, joined in the nature of God, then love is not only in opposition to power. It can also be a form of power. Not a coercive power that seeks to impose its will over and against the will of others, but rather a power that stands in opposition to systemic domination, the subordination of some people and groups for the benefit of other people and groups.
This is something Martin Luther King, Jr. understood well. His sermon “Love in Action” speaks to the power of love. It is one of the better articulations of the love ethic of Jesus, and how that love ethic relates to power. In it, King declares:
Jesus eloquently affirmed from the cross a higher law. He knew that the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy would leave everyone blind. He did not seek to overcome evil with evil. He overcame evil with good. Although crucified by hate, he responded with aggressive love.
What a magnificent lesson! Generations will rise and fall; men [sic.] will continue to worship the god of revenge and bow before the altar of retaliation; but ever again and again this noble lesson of Calvary will be a nagging reminder that only goodness can drive out evil and only love can conquer hate.
This powerful articulation of faith in the efficacy of love comes not from a puppet of entrenched power, nor from a dupe conditioned by a slave ethic to remain in perpetual servitude. Rather it comes from someone whose faith calls him to stand against the powers that would deny him and those like him their right to fully be. In it love stands not in opposition to power, nor under power, but rather as a kind of ultimate power. Power over the power of oppression. Power over the power of fear. Power over the power of humiliation. Power over the power of violence.
This understanding of love as power is of course heavily indebted to Gandhi. It also has strong roots in the black church. It certainly echoes Howard Thurman. But, in addition to that, it stems from Tillich’s understanding of the union of love and power in the nature of God.