One of my favorite classes to teach at Graceland University was "The Life and Writings of Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." It was among my favorites because few figures in US history tie my field of study together so well: Christian theology and ethics.
I loved teaching the Rev Dr. King because he was among the best public theologians and orators of America's meaning in US history.
As a public theologian, Rev Dr. King brought the faith of the Black Church and American ideals together in a way that made his sermons and political addresses indistinguishable. He spoke Baptist faith and his knowledge of God in such public terms that he spoke across religious and social differences. Fifty-four years after his assassination, for me, his vision of America, articulated in his life and writings, is among the only definitions of America worth having. But, his vision is so deeply politically manipulated, whitewashed, and misunderstood today.
Too many Americans and politicians abuse social media with their praises of Martin Luther King, Jr's life and vision. But, they misrepresent his commitment to nonviolence and dream of real social and political equality. They ignore his criticism of American freedom and prophetic call for liberating justice. For Rev Dr. King, nonviolence was not permissive; it was an active force of disruption and agitation against systemic violence. Non-violence was a tool for sustainable change. Anyone who actually reads his writings, or simply the Letter from Birmingham Jail with care will know that justice beyond law lit his vision.
Rev Dr. King's vision for the US was just as morally critical as it was inspiring. He cast a sacred vision of universal democratic freedoms with justice for all that morally opposed racism, poverty, and militarism. (See his Three Evils of Society.) He understood the personal and systemic nature of these evil forces in US supremacism.
His moral criticisms relentlessly aimed to humble the arrogance of American power and supremacism. Morality meant justice by reconciling with the victims of American supremacism: the oppressed, the poor, and lowly. Biblical faith made plain that neither nation nor power stood above the reach of God’s justice.
Rev Dr. King never dreamed of racial equality in America without first ending segregation and the systemic violence of poverty. He never dreamed of US freedom without responsibility, especially responsibility for and to the least in the social hierarchy. He never dreamed of American freedom without democracy, the equal and unfettered right to vote, and economic opportunity. Anyone who will read Rev Dr. King's autobiography or collected writings will know his vision for America didn't rest in natural rights or their US Constitutionality. Universal rights, freedom, and equality are possible only because of the Love and justice of God. The Love of God flows from God and is possible in humanity. It is the sacred power that makes nonviolence and sustainable justpeace possible.