I may add to this series later - I am especially interested in eventually adding posts both on King's understanding of the church and on his views on the relationship between resistance and reconciliation. But, for the moment, I'm leaving it at this.
This final post, as you no doubt guessed from the title, is on King's view of what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ. Because it has such a broad and important topic, it is also considerably longer than most of my admittedly already taxingly-long posts. Hopefully, then, it rewards the time and effort you spend reading it.]
There are two main problems with trying to identify and articulate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Christology, his understanding of what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ. The first is that there is not much overtly Christological material available from King. While his life was a powerful Christian witness motivated by deep theological commitments, and while his sermons and writing have great theological depth, he was not a systematic theologian. He lived his life in service of the church and the Civil Rights movement, not in the service of academic theology. So while he had a PhD in theology, upon receiving that degree from Boston University he rarely had time to sit down and map out a system of belief. He was, frankly, busy doing other, more important things.
Even if, however, he had somehow managed to find the time, between his obligations to his church, to the movement, and to his family, to find the time to work up some kind of theological system that overtly dealt with Christology, it is doubtful he would have done so. This is because many of his beliefs, spelled out so boldly, would not have been appealing to the majority of his followers. King was deeply suspicious of “superstition” in religion, and regarded many traditional Christian beliefs as being superstitious. His interpretation of what many consider to be core Christian doctrine was much more metaphorical than literal, and his understanding of Jesus, shaped in large part by Howard Thurman, would have had more in common with elements of today’s Jesus Seminar than with the average Baptist congregant of King’s day. As such, much of what he did say and write about Jesus was more ethical than theological, focusing on the witness of the historical Jesus rather than a theological understanding of what it means to claim that Jesus is the Christ.
This brings us to the second difficulty: Because King’s ethic, and indeed his very life, is so Christocentric, it is difficult to classify his Christology in terms of the traditional “low” or “high” Christology. While, in terms of doctrine, King may have had a “low” Christology, that deemphasized the superstitious or supernatural character of Christian belief and doctrine, his emphasis on the centrality of Jesus and his consistent application of the way of Jesus to human affairs – even building an entire program of non-violent resistance from applying the way of Jesus to the political realm – makes a mockery of any claim that his Christology was “low.” In light of his continued faith in the way and person of Jesus, and his constant emphasis on the centrality of Jesus, King’s Christology – while neither superstitious nor particularly supernatural – was anything but “low.”
The only place where King overtly spells out his understanding of what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ is in his papers as a seminary student. Here you can see King, the student, building a theological system from the ground up, wrestling with new ideas and trying to incorporate those ideas into his faith. In these papers you can witness his growth, as he puts his childhood faith (and, it should be noted, his collegiate rebellion against said faith) in dialogue with rich new theological resources.
Much of this essay is built on what King wrote in a course at Crozer Theological Seminary, Christian Theology for Today, taught by George Washington Davis. While there can be no doubt that the adult King continued to grow and develop after his seminary education, both at Boston University and in the “real world” – a world that included both pastoral and prophetic Christian ministry – this class may have been the last time King had to lay out exactly what he believed concerning core Christian doctrine. It thus lays out intellectual commitments that helped shape the course of his life and ministry. In the papers from this course King wrestles with key Christological questions, questions of the humanity and divinity of Jesus, the identity of Jesus, and the life and death of Jesus and how it affected the world. In addition to these papers, this essay also considers references to Jesus in some of King’s sermons, and also takes very seriously Howard Thurman’s influence on King’s understanding of Jesus.
King, not surprisingly, uses the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth as a starting point for his Christology. In his writings on Jesus in George Davis’ class, King emphasizes the humanity – and especially the Jewishness – of Jesus of Nazareth. “The Christian Church,” King writes, “has tended to overlook its Judaic origins, but the fact is that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew of Palestine.” It is impossible, according to King, to understand Christianity without understanding the fact that Jesus lived his entire life as a first century Palestinian Jew. This echoes the concern of Rudolph Bultmann, whose work King undoubtedly was exposed to as a seminary student. Additionally, Bultmann’s approach to understanding the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth helped shape Howard Thurman’s understanding of Jesus – especially in his Jesus and the Disinherited – and that in turn had a tremendous influence on King.
In his Jesus and the Word, Bultmann begins his study of Jesus by with a brief overview of Jewish history and belief, recognizing the impossibility of understanding Jesus apart from his context as a first-century Palestinian Jew. Bultmann’s study of Judaism as the setting of Jesus starts with an appreciation of law in the Jewish context. King, too, begins his reflections with an appreciation of law. After defending Jesus’ fidelity to his own Jewish identity, writing “There is no justification of the view that Jesus was attempting to find a church distinct from the Synagogue,” King notes, “It is evident that Jesus had profound respect for the law as did every true Jew.” This respect for the law – which was properly Jewish – was not, however, legalistic in King’s view. Rather, he writes, “it is significant to note that he [Jesus] always sought to get at the spirit of the law. He sought to get back to the ultimate purpose of the law rather than the exact letter.” This helps paint a picture of Jesus as a Jewish reformer, rather than someone who broke away from Judaism to start a new religion.
King’s understanding of Jesus as someone faithful to the religion of his birth, seeking to reform it from the inside rather than rebel against it or overturn it, anticipates King’s work as a faithful critic of his own Christian religion. This shows up in many of his sermons, but perhaps most notably in “A knock at midnight.” There, after laying out a metaphor of social crisis as “midnight,” hurting people and groups as “weary travelers” knocking on a door at midnight, and the church as the house whose door is being so inconveniently knocked on, he observes this:
How often have men [sic] experienced a similar disappointment when they knock on the door of the church. Millions of Africans, patiently knocking on the door of the Christian church where they seek the bread of social justice, have either been ignored or told to wait until later, which almost always means never. Millions of American Negroes, starving for want of the bread of freedom, have knocked again and again on the door of the so-called white churches, but they have usually been greeted by a cold indifference or blatant hypocrisy… One of the shameful tragedies of history is that the institution which should remove man [sic] from the midnight of racial segregation participates in creating and perpetuating the midnight.
King then identifies yet more midnights at which the church, by and large, will not answer the knock on its doors, and yet more breads the church, by and large, will not distribute to those in need. In the “midnight of war” the church will not distribute the “bread of peace.” In the “midnight of economic privation” the church will not distribute the “bread of economic justice.” Yet, despite his clear disappointment with the church, King remains a faithful Christian and pastor. Rather than revolting, or merely leaving, King strives to reform the church from within, laying out a vision for what the church ought to be, rather than trying to start his own religion. This may follow from King’s understanding of Jesus’ relationship to Judaism, which was one of faithful reform. Faithful, in that Jesus – in King’s view – unquestionably remained a Jew his entire life, working as a religious teacher within Judaism, motivated by his own understanding of Jewish teachings, especially with regard to the law. But reform, in that Jesus, in King’s view, gave himself permission to question and critique an emerging legalism within Judaism, by affirming his own distinctly Jewish understanding of the law.
But Jesus was unique, even as a Jew. Unique not in the sense that he deviated from Judaism, or was not properly speaking a true product of his Judaism, but rather unique in the sense that his character and personality were such that he, in King’s view, was simply put the most important person to ever walk the earth. On this King writes:
Jesus remains the most persistent, inescapable, and influential figure that ever entered history. It was such a personality that split history into A.D. and B.C. It was this personality, born under the humblest of conditions in a conquered province in the Roman Empire, that was able in some thirty years only, of which only a few month [sic] were spent in public ministry, to change for many the whole complexion of the world.
What was it about Jesus that, in King’s mind, led him to have such a profound impact on the history of the world in such a short span of time? To answer that question one must turn to another paper King wrote as a student, which overtly deals with a theological understanding of Jesus.
In “The Humanity and Divinity of Jesus,” another paper he wrote for George Washington Davis, the young King is concerned with a central Christological question. Starting with the question Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you think I am?” King unpacks his own Christology in dialogue with Christian theological claims of divine-human cohabitation in the person of Jesus. In it King lays out three basic approaches to the question: “total divinity… with little concern for humanity,” total humanity “with no divine dimensions,” and the doctrine of “Jesus as fully human and fully divine.” And while that final position is held by most Christians as the orthodox Christological doctrine, the final word on the subject, King expresses some concern, writing, “This [Christological] question, which was so prominent in the thinking of the early Christian centuries, was not answered once and for all at the council of Chalcedon.”
“[R]ather”, King writes, “it lurks forth in modern theological thinking with an amazing degree of freshness.” This statement, which refuses to allow the doctrinal door to be shut against further theological thinking, affirms efforts to explore anew Jesus’ relationship with God, the extent to which God worked and works through Jesus, and was and is revealed in Jesus. It reopens the question of what it means for Christians to affirm that Jesus is the Christ.
Here as in his earlier paper on the subject of Jesus, King begins with the humanity of Jesus. “If there is one thing of which modern Christians have been certain”, King writes, “it is that Jesus was a true man, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh.” To deny the humanity of Jesus is deeply unchristian. In being fully human, Jesus is of necessity as limited as any other human being. In support of this King notes that Jesus was subject to temptation no less than any other person – a fact that King himself, so often subject to the temptations of the flesh, no doubt found comforting. In addition to suffering temptation King notes that Jesus grew hungry, thirsty, and tired. He was, in other words, subject to the limitations of mortal life. And not just the physical limitations, the need to eat, drink, and sleep, but also the mental and emotional ones. He had to be taught things, suffered grief, shed tears, and felt pain. He prayed – and sometimes his prayers reflected profound anxiety.
Further, he was clearly, King notes, not omniscient, but rather acknowledged his own ignorance concerning some matters. This is an important point to King, who quotes H.R. Mackintosh to support his claim:
Not only is it related that Jesus asked questions to elicit information – regarding the site of Lazarus’ tomb, for example, or the number of loaves, or the name of the demented Gadarene – but at one point there is clear acknowledgment of ignorance. ‘Of that day and hour,’ He said, respecting the Parousia, ‘knoweth no man, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.’ If he could thus be ignorant of a detail connected in some measure with his redemptive work, the conclusion is unavoidable that in secular affairs His knowledge was but the knowledge of His time.
This ignorance – or, perhaps better this innate limitation – outlined by Mackintosh confirms for King that Jesus fully shared the human experience of those of his time. “Jesus”, King writes, “fully shared our human life.”
What then made and makes him so unique? King addresses this question in the second half of his paper. “After establishing the humanity of Jesus”, he writes, “we still find an element in his life that transcends the human.” Properly identifying this transcendent element is at the core of Christology. In this it is easier to articulate what King could not affirm about Jesus than what he could affirm. Part of this is because he does not fully unpack what he affirms. Jesus, to King, is properly seen “as a human being surrounded by divinity,” a phrase so ambiguous that in grading the paper George Davis rightly asks him to clarify what he means. By contrast, King is very clear when he criticizes the orthodox position of Jesus’ divinity:
The orthodox attempt to explain the divinity of Jesus in terms of an inherent metaphysical substance within him seems inadequate. To say that the Christ, whose example for living we are bid to share, is divine in an ontological sense is actually harmful and detrimental. To invest this Christ with such supernatural qualities makes the rejoinder: “Oh, well, he had a better chance for that kind of life than we can possibly have.” In other words, one could easily use this as a means to hide behind his [sic] failures.
Thus, despite the fact that King almost certainly viewed this Christological approach as being physically impossible, the product of superstition rather than clear thinking, his overt critique is not philosophical, but rather pastoral and ethical. In this sense it sets a pattern he would follow throughout his career: rather than take a “superstitious” doctrine head on, critiquing it in light of developing modern thought, he would – as a pastor and a public ethicist who often offering stinging prophetic critiques – express his concern pastorally. The problem with a supernatural view of Jesus as inherently ontologically divine is not, thus, that such a situation would be physically impossible. Rather, the problem is that it could lead one to opt out of following the example of Jesus, setting up the convenient cop out that, as literally ontologically divine, Jesus could live up to a standard that of course human beings could not realistically be expected to follow.
For King what it principally means to say that Jesus is the Christ is to say that Jesus serves as a model for authentic human life. Jesus, King writes, serves as a “prototype.” That is his function as the Christ. Whatever divinity may be ascribed to him comes not as a matter of “inherent metaphysical substance,” but rather as a product of the example of his life. An example, by the way, that all humans are called by God to follow. In this, part of what it thus means to say that Jesus is the Christ is to say that Jesus invites all humans to participate in a fully human way of living, in which all humans, at least potentially can become really like Christ.
This is where King’s Christology – which reflects the dialogical approach he would flesh out in more detail later in his life – explodes the distinction between “low” and “high.” It is “low” in the sense that Jesus is not literally metaphysically divine. Yet, rather than retreat from the standard critique of such “low” Christologies – that they are insufficiently Christian – he points out the pastoral and ethical limitations of the “high” Christology. Thus that which has served as orthodox Christian doctrine, though it may pass the test of orthodoxis – of right belief – fails the more vital test of orthopraxis – of right practice. Good Christian doctrine is, in King’s view, doctrine that enables one to live a thoroughly Christian life, not doctrine that enables one to pass some doctrinal test. This is where it becomes evident that, though in his later career he wisely refused to spell out his doctrinal beliefs concerning the metaphysical nature of Jesus, it is impossible to make a sharp distinction between King’s Christology and his ethic. That is because his ethic is a Christocentric ethic, and his Christology is concerned principally with advancing his ethic; that is, with motivating Christians to behave like Jesus, to pattern their lives after the example of Jesus.
And though King does not spell out his beliefs concerning Jesus in his ministry, he does often hold Jesus up as a moral example. King cites the Jesus, for instance, as a primary motivation for the Civil Rights movement, writing this of the relationship between Jesus and the Montgomery Bus Boycott:
It was the Sermon on the Mount, rather than a doctrine of passive resistance, that initially inspired the Negroes of Montgomery to dignified social action. It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love.
King may have been skeptical of bodily resurrection, but it is clear from the way that he refers to the very present influence of Jesus here that the person of Jesus endures, whatever one believes concerning resurrection. The image of Jesus stirring oppressed persons to action is an image of an active, enduring presence experienced by a community in need of help, motivating that community to moral and political action. In this case Jesus’ enduring action provides a twofold moral example, both spurring resistance to dehumanizing oppression, and shaping the nature of the resistance. In this King is following Howard Thurman, an old family friend, and dean of the chapel at Boston University while King was pursuing his PhD there.
In his Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman, Johnny Bernard Hill says, “offers a remarkable ‘1940s’ version of a Christocentric liberation theology.” He begins with an interpretation of Jesus, an interpretation that no doubt helped shape King’s own thought concerning Jesus. This interpretation – like King’s – begins with the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, and rarely if ever strays into speculative metaphysics. The central mechanism in this interpretation is Thurman’s sharp distinction between “Christianity” – which “often has been sterile and of little avail” to “those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity” despite having “their backs against the wall” – and “the religion of Jesus.” It is “the religion of Jesus” – which stems from the example and teachings of Jesus – that is of most concern to Thurman, who sees it as being of vital significance “to people who stand with their backs against the wall.”
And what, according to Thurman, is the center, the core, of the religion of Jesus? Love. “The religion of Jesus makes the love-ethic central.” It is love, a political ethic of love, that Jesus, in Thurman’s reading of him, offers as a response to “the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited.” Those hounds of hell are fear, deception, and hate, and love is their undoing. Not love that naively believes the best about others, that is full of romanticized feelings, and a denial of evil. Rather, love that explodes the category of “enemy,” the paradigm of “us” against “them.” Such a love, that transcends fickle feelings without, of course, discounting the emotional aspect of human personality, is very difficult, and makes strong demands on the oppressed and the oppressor alike. Such a love aims for reconciliation, but not a cheap reconciliation brought about by a denial of past harms and present conditions. It aims instead for an authentic reconciliation brought about by repentance and forgiveness. And, in Thurman’s reading, you can’t have one without the other. The oppressor must repent – which involves confession and contrition as well as a concrete change in behavior – or reconciliation is impossible, because oppression still exists.
It is clear from his life and work that King, with his insistence that resistance be non-violent, follows this understanding of the love-ethic of Jesus, central to the religion of Jesus. Here Jesus as the Christ serves as the model for a political ethic. Modern exegetes like Walter Wink have spelled out in great detail how the teachings of Jesus, such as “turning the other cheek” or “walking an extra mile” are, rather than calls to set aside one’s own basic dignity and humanity in the face of injustice, actually creative tools for undermining injustice. King did not, however, need such potent exegetical tools to understand that the way of Jesus, the love-ethic of Jesus, serves those on the margins rather than those in power. For him it was a matter of faith, and a matter of tradition, that Jesus was on the side of the oppressed. And for him the way of Jesus – which includes a political ethic of love – was the most potent tool for fighting systemic oppression.
This is, for King, what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ. It is not an ontological statement, a statement concerning Jesus’ metaphysical nature, his being, his essence. It is instead a pastoral statement, an ethical statement, a political statement. It is also a statement of faith, that the way of Jesus is the right way, a pattern for all of humanity – and especially the oppressed to follow. Unpacking the nature of Jesus as the Christ requires looking not to early theological documents for records of Christian beliefs concerning Jesus, but rather to the Gospels as sources of information about the life, teachings, and witness of the historical Jesus.