Martin Luther King, Jr. | Critical Essay by James H. Smylie

This literature criticism consists of approximately 21 pages of analysis & critique of Martin Luther King, Jr..
This section contains 6,222 words
(approx. 21 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by James H. Smylie

Critical Essay by James H. Smylie

Right. So, it's now eight years. I've many, many notebooks, but what I see when I examine the notebooks now are phases of development toward the work I'm doing at present. I see it in embryonic stages early on, and I begin to see what I thought were simply notes, because they didn't resemble my earlier work, were, actually in early form, the work that I have now begun to do … the new work, in other words. I didn't recognize it at first. I thought it was failed old work.

The purpose of the following analysis is to explore the exodus theme in King's interpretation of the New and Old Testaments. Drawing upon the religious traditions of most Americans, including those brought from Africa, King defined the chosen people, oppression under this world's pharaohs, and the promised land in the light of his interpretation and acceptance of the radical demands of Jesus Christ upon his life.

An Objective Assessment of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

If the world is at all capable of candor, if the need by blacks and whites to apotheosize Martin Luther King (if for dissimilar reasons) does not exclude objective assessment, then it must surely be admitted that his nobility, his charisma, derived principally from the fact that, initially, he moralized the plight of the American black in simplistic and Manichaean terms whose veracity the enlightened Southern white was grudgingly compelled to concede and the Northern white was generally relieved, if not delighted, to champion. He was the echo chamber of the racially oppressed but an echo chamber whose reverberations were rounder, more intelligible, and much more polite than the raw cries that it transformed. Whether dreaming on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or triumphally announcing, at the conclusion of the Selma-Montgomery march, that black people could no longer be turned around by Southern intimidation, Martin's message—in the language of the prophets and the revivalists—never directly threatened, probably never really disconcerted, and always, until near the end, evoked, in its aftermath of white guilt and black self-pity, deeply pleasurable emotions.

David L. Lewis, in his King: A Critical Biography, Praeger Publishers, 1970.

Ironically, with regard to the Negro's quest for identity in America, the theme of exodus and deliverance from bondage comes out of the Hebrew experience of slavery in Africa. Not only so, but the exodus has been a dominant theme in the way white Americans have identified themselves. For white Christians, the Bible has been the rule of faith and life. It has been natural for Americans to think of themselves as chosen people and to interpret development of the New World, apart from the political and religious degradation of the Old, in terms of a Mount Zion in the wilderness. Similarly oppressed immigrant groups in the nineteenth century looked upon America as the promised land of economic as well as political opportunity. The exodus theme has been wed to eighteenth-century conceptions of liberty and justice embedded in the Declaration of Independence. At the time of the American Revolution, patriots thought of their deliverance out of the land of Britain as out of the house of bondage, and even considered using an engraving of Moses and the children of Israel being delivered from the Pharaoh's army at the Red Sea as the Great Seal of the United States. But in the conquest for this promised land there was sin in the camp. Black slavery was America's Achan—spoil which spelled trouble as an American dilemma. The Constitutional compromises following the Revolution suggested that America might mean liberty and justice for white Americans only—not for all. For the Jew especially the exodus has been a vital part of self-understanding. Until the establishment of modern Israel, Jews thought of themselves as in exile, as wanderers over the face of the earth since the fall of Jerusalem. But in the nineteenth century, Jewish immigrants to America, under the leadership of the remarkable Isaac Meyer Wise, began to interpret diaspora in terms of challenge, not punishment. They thought of the Jewish mission as that of spreading the true knowledge and worship of God, of achieving liberty and justice for all—not as the establishment of a new Jewish state. Jewish success in America has turned the place of exile into a promised land. Instead of being Shadrachs, Meshachs, and Abednegoes, Jews have experienced a new kind of Babylonian captivity in white America's gilded ghettoes, and have become identified with America's oppressors.

There is irony in the fact that the exodus theme is about the bondage of a people under Africans. There is also irony in the fact that Martin Luther King should be so effective in dealing with the oppression of Africans in America in an idiom which has meant so much to the majority of white Americans.

King did not want to be like Moses. According to his persuasive renditions of the gospel song at Baptist conventions at the age of four or five, King wanted to be more and more like Jesus. The childlike wish was prophetic of the man. It offers a clue to understanding King's later hermeneutical principles. A descendant of slaves, reared, and educated within America's Negro community, King shared with that community its religious memories and expectations, and moved from his New Testament understanding of Jesus to an understanding of the Old Testament theme of exodus. The grandson and son of Baptist ministers, and then an ordained Baptist minister himself, King did his interpretation within the milieu of the Afro-American community. While the debate over what remained of the slave's African heritage continues, it seems clear that the shock of alienation was so great that the majority of blacks had to establish some kind of personal and corporate identity through those religious and political categories in the master's culture. While the white man taught the slave submissiveness out of the Pauline corpus, the black was learning other lessons.

This is movingly illustrated as early as 1794 in the address of Richard Allen to those who kept blacks and approved the practice of slavery in the eighteenth century. Allen, the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, reminded Americans of a revolutionary generation that God himself was the "first pleader of the cause of slaves" ["An Address To Those Who Keep Slaves and Approve the Practice," in The Life Experience and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, 1960]. Because slavery is hateful in his sight, God, the "avenger of slaves," destroyed Pharaoh and his princes. The black preacher cautioned white Americans that they were behaving like the Pharaohs who despised the needs of feeble Israelites. But, while admitting how natural it is for slaves to hate oppressors, Allen reminded American blacks that hate was forbidden God's chosen people. "The meek and humble Jesus," he wrote, "the great pattern of humanity and every other virtue that can adorn and dignify men, hath commanded to love our enemies." Blacks were to do good to those who hated and used them spitefully. They were to give thanks to God for removing anger and bitterness from their hearts, and for delivering them from the desire to shed the blood of other men. It is not known whether King knew of Allen's combination of the exodus theme and the admonition of Jesus, but Allen's address indicates how old the approach is in the Negro community.

Obviously, the black experience in darkest America has involved considerable hatred, bitterness, and increasing hostility. From the beginning, black life was "one continual cry," to use David Walker's phrase, against American pharaohs. In the nineteenth century, Harriet Tubman was considered a Moses for her dangerous work on the underground railroad. Spirituals took on fresh cogency as blacks sang "Go down, Moses," or "Joshua fit de battle ob Jericho," or

         O Mary, doan you weep, doan you moan,
              Pharaoh's army got drownded.

They signaled one another with "Steal away to Jesus," as some of the adventuresome ones were "bound for the promised land" in Canada. When subjugation under chattel slavery was replaced with exploitation under segregation, Marcus Garvey expressed the growing frustration of Negroes in the third decade of the twentieth century. He became a Moses, with a difference. Garvey celebrated blackness in his Universal Negro Improvement Association. He wished to take blacks black to Africa, the promised land, on the Black Star Steamship Line, blessed by the Black Madonna and the Black Christ. Obviously, slave revolts and race riots in American history indicate that violence, often sublimated in spirituals, expressed the blacks' truest feelings about the dominant majority. And as frustration has grown, blacks have turned from Christianity as manifested in white and black America toward such ideologies as Communism. Langston Hughes maintained that Jesus had been sold to "Rockefeller's church" and wrote

            You ain't no good no more….
               And step on the gas, Christ
             Don't be so slow about moving;

Now King shared this legacy with the past. As a young black man himself, he felt the frustrations of blacks; but he rejected Communism as an alternative because it was a "metaphysical materialism," an "ethical relativism," and a "strangulating totalitarianism" [Stride toward Freedom]. His alternative was a politicizing of love, of the meekness and humility of Jesus. To be sure, it was from Gandhi's Salt March to the Sea which challenged Britain's imperial lion that King learned to appreciate the awesome power of nonviolent resistance to evil. Gandhi taught him that Christian love, part of the confessional life of his black tradition, was applicable to America and would be the instrument of his people's deliverance. But Christ, not Gandhi, supplied the spirit and motivation of his movement. King was fond of interpreting the word "love" in its biblical context. Following Anders Nygren's Agape and Eros, he made distinctions in the several words employed in the New Testament. Eros meant, in Platonic philosophy, the yearning of the soul for the divine, and in contemporary usage, a romantic love. Philia meant an intimate and reciprocal relation between two friends based upon mutuality. King emphasized agape, the "love of God operating in the human heart." This love shows that all life is interrelated. The Christian must seek the neighbor's good because of his need, and the enemy's good to restore and preserve human community. This love, King argued, involves forgiveness and reconciliation and is motivated by God's love made known on the cross: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." The crucifixion represents, on the one hand, the sordid weakness of man at his worst, and on the other, the "unlimited power of God," the "magnificent symbol of love conquering hate, and of light overcoming darkness [Strength to Love].

Taking this imperative seriously, King was able to adopt and adapt to advantage a method of nonviolent resistance, and interpreted the biblical witness for his followers. Some admonitions of Jesus' he took quite literally. When, for example, Jesus said to Peter, "Put up thy sword," Jesus, according to King, was demanding of Peter and the other disciples a better way. It was not a cowardly command. Jesus' call was to resist evil in such a way that those resisting would avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as physical violence, and would suffer without retaliation. Jesus called for a resistance to the forces of evil which would not defeat or humiliate the humanity of oppressors caught in the evil. This was the pattern of God's own love, a combination of toughmindedness and tenderheartedness. He interpreted other words of Jesus in a different way. In dealing with Jesus' warning, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword," King denied that Jesus meant a physical weapon. Rather, concentrating upon the word "peace," he suggested that Jesus intended to challenge the old shape of things with the creative demands of the Kingdom of God, to awaken a dead passivity with living, concerned love. For King it was only with the sword of love that the black could open the "boil" of exploitation with which America was afflicted and heal the infection. For King, love was the only pragmatic approach to black bondage in America. But the literal sword of violence was another matter. "All who take the sword will perish by the sword," he warned his hearers during the Montgomery bus boycott, in which nonviolent resistance was first employed. This was true for persons and peoples. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind, and history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that failed to follow Christ's command to love. It was through agape manifested in nonviolent resistance to evil that King hoped to cut the endless circle of bitterness, hate, and violence, counter-bitterness, counter-hate, and counter-violence.

In a remarkable paraphrase of Paul's letter to Corinth, King addressed American Christians:

Calvary is a telescope through which we look into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking into time…. In a world depending on force, coercive tyranny, and bloody violence, you are challenged to follow the way of love. You will then discover that unarmed love is the most powerful force in all the world [Strength to Love].

In this love King laid hold of one of the most important traditions of black America, turned it into an instrument of social change through nonviolent resistance, and confounded American pharaohs dependent to a large extent upon the same biblical tradition for self-identity. Moreover, King gave the basic clue for understanding his interpretation of those biblical passages which have to do with oppression and the Pharaohs, the promised land, and God's chosen people.

It is remarkable that King as a biblical interpreter alluded so infrequently in his formal writings to the Exodus narrative. In only one place did he deal with the narrative at length—and then in the most natural way—when he spoke of the dead Egyptians along the shores of the Red Sea. He was not interested, obviously, in scholarly treatments of textual variants, in the form, place, expression, and scope of texts, or, for that matter, in the differences between his world view and the world view of Hebrew people. As a matter of fact, King assumed that the exodus is an archetypal experience, and that the experience of the Hebrew people in Egypt was similar to that of blacks in America. Exodus supplied King with the metaphorical language which allowed him to interpret black experience, just as the black experience allowed him to understand something of what it must have been like in Egypt under Pharaoh. But King allowed agape to inform his interpretation at every point along the way.

Egypt, according to King, symbolized evil in the form of "humiliating oppression, ungodly exploitation, and crushing domination," while Pharaoh symbolized dominating oppressors and exploiters [Strength to Love]. King was, to be sure, preoccupied with his ministry to blacks in America. But from the very beginning of that ministry, his sympathies were as wide as humanity. The Bible, he wrote, witnesses to a thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh's court centuries ago and cried, "Let my people go." But the story of Israelites in Egypt was only the "opening chapter in a continuing story." The present struggle in the United States and throughout the world was only a "later chapter in the same story" [Where Do We Go from Here?]. There is, therefore, no discontinuity in the early event remembered and the existential situation from which all people in this world's Egypts seek deliverance. From the earliest days of his ministry, King's interpretation of those oppressed embraced, not only his own blacks, but all other enslaved people. Thus, those in Latin America, Asia, and Africa who had suffered from captivity were, indeed, breaking loose from the "Egypt of colonialism and imperialism." In all of these areas, some "courageous Moses" had arisen to plead for the freedom and justice of the people. Because of the liberation of people all over the world, King considered his obligations to the oppressed in America all the more urgent. The point is, however, that he interpreted Egypt as involving more people than simply those of his own minority. Moreover, his acceptance of the radical spirit and motivation of love allowed him to look with sympathy upon pharaohs and Egyptians. Oppressors are always "derivative victims" of their oppression, and King called attention to the fact that in America, the oppression of blacks had meant the financial, intellectual, and moral impoverishment of whites [Why We Can't Wait].

There is another continuity in addition to that which involves oppression in Egypt. Oppressed people will not put up with bondage forever. But when they seek deliverance, pharaohs and Egyptians act in a similar manner to prevent liberation. King experienced what Moses experienced in Pharaoh's court when he went before the City Commissioners of Montgomery—"pharaohs of the South," he called them—during the bus boycott. The pharaohs of this world will not give an inch. What the Exodus narrative illustrated is that evil is recalcitrant and determined, and when challenged, attempts to hold its power with fanatical resistance. When the pressure is increased, pharaohs will say, "Wait." Then pharaohs will say, "Go slower." What the pharaohs mean, according to King's interpretation of Exodus, is "Never." Pharaohs may try tokenism, but this is only a way to end pressure, not to begin the process of liberation. King was fond of developing this theme. When the demands continue, pharaohs will attempt to divide and dissolve the cohesion of the malcontents. King had to face this problem as the Civil Rights movement began to waver with the emergence of black power advocates in the mid-nineteen-sixties. "The Pharaohs," he warned his followers, "had a favorite and effective strategy to keep their slaves in bondage: keep them fighting among themselves. The divide-and-conquer technique has been a potent weapon in the arsenal of oppression." "But," King encouraged, "when slaves unite, the Red Seas of history open and the Egypts of slavery crumble" [Where Do We Go From Here?]. King was especially incensed with the way in which American pharaohs attempted to force American blacks to make bricks without straw. He believed himself in a struggle for opportunity. What he was told by whites was that blacks ought to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, following the pattern of other immigrant groups. King preached that this was a cruel jest. Blacks were not immigrants. They had been brought to America in bondage. Moreover, other minorities did not have to overcome the virus of racism which plagued American life. And the bootstrap methodology would work only if blacks had shoes. So far, the American pharaohs were satisfied to send the Negro into the wilderness without such help.

Given the mounting frustration of American blacks, King showed amazing sympathy for Pharaoh and his Egyptians. His one sermon on Exodus was on the text 14:30, "And Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea shore." It is worthy of special attention because it illustrates cogently the way in which King interpreted the Old Testament with the use of the New. Pharaoh will use every means to keep Israelites in bondage. After he is forced to let them go, he will even pursue in order to enslave them again. The text describes the children of Israel looking back at the poor drowned Egyptians lying here and there upon the seashore. Pharaoh had employed legal maneuvers, economic reprisals, and even physical violence to keep Israel in bondage. Now that the ordeal was over Israelites could rejoice. For King, the point of the story was not the dead Egyptians upon the seashore. "The meaning of this story is not found in the drowning of Egyptian soldiers, for no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being," he wrote. Rather, this story symbolized "the death of evil and of inhuman oppression and unjust exploitation" [Strength to Love]. There is something in the very nature of the universe, King held, which assists goodness in its perennial struggle with evil. "A Red Sea passage in history ultimately brings the forces of goodness to victory, and the closing of the same water marks the doom and destruction of the forces of evil" [Strength to Love]. This interpretation is inaccord with King's view of agape, and Jesus' teaching that excluded vindictiveness

King addressing a crowd at Chicago's Soldier Field.King addressing a crowd at Chicago's Soldier Field.
and vengeance. After the Selma march in 1965, when the provocation had been especially great, King spoke and fell easily into the use of the exodus metaphor. "Yes," he intoned in his rich voice, "we are on the move and no wave of racism can stop us." While he accused pharaohs and Egyptians of all the stratagems of oppressors, he repeated that the purpose of the march was not to defeat or humiliate the white man. He sought, not the triumph of the black man over the white, but understanding, friendship, and the victory of "man as man."

King did not use the idiom of exodus to describe the struggle for freedom simply as a class struggle; he interpreted in theological terms the struggle of all people seeking liberation. To be sure, he referred to "something" in the very nature of the universe which champions the cause of the oppressed; but for him, God is the Lord of history and the active agent in the cause. Here the Baptist preacher faced a problem—the passivity of black Americans, particularly in black churches, used to following Jesus, "meek and humble," without asserting themselves. This was due, according to King, to a perverted interpretation of Calvinism which left all to God. Countering this enervating theological approach, King made use of the Exodus narrative. "When Moses strove to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land, God made it clear that he would not do for them what they could do for themselves," he warned. "'And the Lord said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of israel, that they go forward'" [Strength to Love]. But, asserting the other side of the paradox, King confessed that all was of God. The God of the universe struggles for and with the oppressed. God remembers his people in Egypt. He gives the inner recourse to the oppressed to bear their Egypts, to break their bonds and to undertake the journey through the wilderness. He is the one who insures the victory of good over evil, truth over falsehood. Pharaoh may exploit the children of Israel—"nevertheless afterward!" Pilate may yield to the crowd and crucify Christ—"nevertheless afterward!" It is God who gives the afterward—the promised land.

King's interpretation of the promised land and God's chosen people is informed by his Christian humanism. As is clear from the preceding analysis, he did not see the promised land in terms of a territorial imperative. For Harriet Tubman the promised land was Canada; for Marcus Garvey it was Africa free from colonial government. For black Muslims, it has been several southern states, and more recently, for black nationalists, it has involved political hegemony of urban ghettoes. For King the promised land was an expression of a world-wide vision. He employed it many times. In encouraging blacks during the bus boycott, he told them to walk and not get weary. They could count on a "great camp meeting in the promised land of freedom and justice" ["Out of the Long Night of Segregation," The Presbyterian Outlook, Feb. 10, 1958]. They were moving through the "Red Sea of injustice" [Strength to Love] and into the "promised land of integration and freedom" [Why We Can't Wait]. The peoples of the world were moving toward the "promised land of economic and cultural stability" [Where Do We Go From Here?]. The phrase was a metaphor which embraced all people and the whole world. King summarized this dream for the United States in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the Washington march, August, 1963. In an address given just before his death, he renewed and revised his dream to include the whole world. His concern for Vietnam was, therefore, not new. It should not have come as any surprise that he should have championed the antiwar cause, not only because of his nonviolent approach to life's problems, but because he attacked all racism, militarism, and materialism. King often quoted Amos. The promised land was the world in which justice would run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. America's third revolution—the Negro revolution—was to lead to such a promised land.

There is a universalism in King's conception of the promised land. There is still a particularism to his definition of God's chosen people. God calls people to serve him in the struggle against oppression, exploitation, and domination, through doing justly and seeking righteousness. Who are the chosen people? Being a member of the Christian church, King was unwilling to disregard and discard it. But he was also unwilling to identify Christian institutions with God's chosen ones. Nowhere did he express more poignantly his disappointment with the church than in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, answering Christian and Jewish clergymen who thought his demonstrations were "unwise and untimely." They pleaded for honest and open negotiations on racial issues in Birmingham, as though Negro rights were negotiable. To King, they were acting like Pharaoh's magicians—and were giving another indication of the churches' aiding in the maintenance of the race-caste system in American society. The church was much in evidence in Birmingham, housed in massive religious education buildings. Members of these churches had "blemished and scarred" the body of Christ through "social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists," and the judgment of God was upon the churches, as it had been upon Pharaoh. Perhaps, King mused, "I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world." He thanked God for members of the church whose witness during the struggle for freedom was like "spiritual salt" which preserved the true meaning of the gospel of Christ in troubled times. The churches were full of "un-christian christians" and was not to be identified with the chosen people [Why We Can't Wait].

God's chosen people had a special responsibility to deliver the oppressed from the Egypts of oppression. King, like Richard Allen before him, maintained that the oppressed had a special place in God's economy. He believed that the black American had such a special responsibility. In his address to students in Oslo, when he was in Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he employed the biblical imagery. "We have left the dusty soils of Egypt and crossed a Red Sea whose waters had for years been hardened by a long and piercing winter of massive resistance," he said in rehearsing the history of his movement. "But before we reach the majestic shores of the promised land, there is a frustrating and bewildering wilderness ahead." Shortly thereafter when Negroes raised a cry for black power, King interpreted this in terms of the disappointments of the wilderness, and voiced a challenge to the American blacks. In Where Do We Go from Here?, he wrote:

Let us therefore not think of our movement as one that seeks to integrate the Negro into all the existing values of American society. Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness.

We are superbly equipped to do this. We have been seared in the flames of suffering. We have known the agony of being the underdog. We have learned from our have-not status that it profits a nation little to gain the whole world of means and lose in the end, its own soul. We must have a passion for peace formed out of wretchedness and the misery of war. Giving our ultimate allegiance to the empire of justice, we must be that colony of dissenters seeking to imbue our nation with the ideals of a higher and nobler order. So in dealing with our particular dilemma, we will challenge the nation to deal with its larger dilemma.

This is the challenge. If we will dare to meet it honestly, historians in future years will have to say there lived a great people—a black people—who bore their burdens of oppression in the heat of many days and who, through tenacity and creative commitment, injected new meaning into the veins of American life.

Despite this interpretation of the special calling of the black oppressed, King was equally unwilling to identify the black community with God's chosen people. He was aware of stiff-necked Israelites. Moses soon learned that the children of Israel did not always think kindly of their deliverers and in their wilderness ordeal often yearned longingly for the fleshpots of Egypt. King knew that members of the black bourgeoisie, serving, as it were, in pharaoh's court, had abdicated responsibility and were as little interested in justice and nonviolent resistance to evil as were their white counterparts. All people are oppressors. Blacks are no exception.

His conception of God's chosen people was directly related to his interpretation of the radical claims of Jesus. God's chosen people are those who have been set free from the bondage of fear, black and white together, and have thus been enabled by the love of God to challenge oppression wherever it may be found. King referred to the fact that the Indians had been able to move against the British only when they had been freed from fear, and he knew that God's people must be freed from fear to march on this world's pharaohs, not away from them. Some of America's blacks were so freed. "It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love," King wrote of the bus boycott. They were able to use this weapon because life was centered on the will and purpose of God. According to King, it is this love for God and devotion to his will that cast out fear. The true Christian belongs to a "colony of Heaven" in which ultimate allegiance is to God. Developing this theme further, he explained how

… hate is rooted in fear, and the only cure for fear-hate is love…. If our white brothers are to master fear they must depend not only on their commitment to Christian love but also on the Christlike love which the Negro generates toward them. Only through our adherence to love and non-violence will the fear in the white community be mitigated. A guilt-ridden white minority fears that if the Negro attains power, he will without restraint or pity act to revenge-the accumulated injustices and brutality of the years [Stride toward Freedom].

While it was the responsibility of the blacks to show the way, King argued that it was to be black and white together—moved by love, freed from fear, able, as were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, to resist evil, and to seek after justice for all. God's chosen people know that being killed is not the ultimate evil. The ultimate evil, he said, is to be outside God's love. Those inside that love are the true people of God.

On the night before he was assassinated, King described himself as a man who wanted to do God's will. God, he maintained, had allowed him to go up into the mountain. "And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land." He was engaged at the time in helping garbage workers in Memphis obtain better wages and working conditions. After King was shot, the editor of soul force, journal of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, changed the allusion. Instead of using metaphors from the Exodus narrative, the editor printed words from Genesis 37:19: "Behold, this dreamer cometh … let us slay him…. And we shall see what will become of his dreams." The allusion, of course, was to Joseph, not to Moses, to the beginning of Israel's sojourn in bondage, not to the deliverance from Egypt. What comes immediately to mind is the fact that the Joseph narrative had been used in the Hebrew-Christian tradition for theodicy, to assure the faithful that God will bring good out of evil.

For the first time in American history, a President of the United States ordered flags to be flown at half-mast to honor a simple Baptist preacher and leader struck down cruelly in the prime of life. Perhaps this national action was taken as much out of fear as out of respect for the man. To be sure, King drew to himself a great many Americans, white and black, Christians and Jews, who accepted his interpretation of America's problems and his approach to their resolution. But he was despised and rejected by many others. That hostility was undoubtedly inspired and motivated in part because he employed in his rationalization biblical themes and metaphors so important to white America. This was all the more aggravating because he interpreted the Old Testament metaphorsconcerning oppression, pharaohs, and the promised land, through his understanding of the imperative placed upon him by Jesus. King was a disciplined man, but everywhere he went, violence was always a possibility, either from enraged whites or less disciplined blacks unwilling to abide by rules he established for their nonviolent resistance to evil. In the end, that violence destroyed King himself. For a black man so to live out the life of Jesus Christ by turning the other cheek, by his willingness to forgive, not seven times seven, but seventy times seven, and to love the enemy in a struggle for all exploited people, may have been the ultimate insult to whites who thought they had a corner on the favors of Jesus of Nazareth. The unforgivable sin which King committed was to expose the hypocrisy not only of Americans as Americans, but more fundamentally of Americans as Christians.

As a Christian humanist, King's approach to oppression is extremely important in a time when the tendency seems to be toward narrow tribalism on the part of whites and blacks alike, for the feeding of group-ego and group-interest. According to studies, white America, despite professions of Christian love and pledges of liberty and justice for all, moves in the direction of two separate and unequal societies based upon white supremacy and the exploitation of the blacks. The American Jews, not all of whom have been ardent supporters of the black cause, are not excluded from this judgment. Moreover, some Jews in America have grown alarmed at black anti-Semitism, and are suspicious of Americans who do not agree with them on policies having to do with the defense of Israel as a nation state. Since the Six-Day War, one American theologian has accentuated the importance of Israel as the promised land, and has suggested that now the theme of Jewish history is homecoming, not diaspora. Militant blacks, convinced by the white majority that "whitey" does not want reconciliation nor a life of reciprocity with the black, have become more revolutionary. The cry for black power has been aggravated by a "Black Manifesto." James Forman, a type of Moses perhaps more like that found in Exodus, has confronted Christian and Jewish America, beginning symbolically at Riverside Church—Rockefeller's church—and has demanded reparations, the destruction of American institutions, and a new society. Since white America understands violence, some blacks reason, it may be through violence only that they can liberate themselves from oppression and establish their identity as men. King's Christian humanism, based upon the interpretation of the Old Testament through the New, was full of expectation forall men. His dream was not marred by black nationalism or racism, for in Christ, King believed, "there is neither Jew or Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. God, who made the world and all things therein … made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth." King, it appears from his later thought, was beginning to realize that when a people seeks liberty and justice within a land of bondage, they may need more than a strategy of nonviolent resistance to evil. The debate over black power forced to the front the clash between what the National Committee of Negro Clergymen call conscience-less power and powerless conscience. In this case, King, true to his interpretation of the biblical message, called for shared power for responsible use to meet the plight of blacks in urban slums.

When King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he expressed his hope in biblical terms:

I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land. "And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid." I still believe that we shall overcome.

He accepted the prize as a trustee on behalf of "all men who love peace and brotherhood."

James H. Smylie, "On Jesus, Pharaohs, and the Chosen People," in Interpretation: A Journal of Bible & Theology, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, January, 1970, pp. 74-91.

(read more)

This section contains 6,222 words
(approx. 21 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by James H. Smylie
Follow Us on Facebook