Social Engagement and the Christian Witness: the Social Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr.



One of the more well-known and well-beloved, albeit misunderstood, figures in recent American history is Martin Luther King, Jr. Many Americans laud his work as a civil rights activist, political figure, and practitioner of nonviolence. He worked for many years to change the ways that African Americans were treated in the United States. Conservatives and liberals alike praise his accomplishments. For example, in the discussions surrounding recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, King has often been cited both by those praising the protests and by those condemning the riots.[1] King’s words concerning society and social engagement are a cultural currency used by groups in opposition.

However, many often forget that King was not simply a civil rights activist. More fundamentally, King was a pastor—a Baptist pastor.[2] In fact, “King was a Christian theologian and an ordained minister in the Progressive Black Baptist denomination.”[3] One must begin first with that identification of King. Before he marched for civil rights in Selma, King pastored Christians at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

A question arises, however. One of the typical contours of Baptist theology is a clear demarcation between the church and the state.[4]  Whereas the state has been granted authority to keep society in line, God has charged the church to draw men and women into closer communion with the Lord, or so the argument goes. Other models of the relationship between the church and the state notwithstanding,[5] one must consider how King, whose Baptist heritage he inherited from a lineage of paternal preachers, made such a radical departure from one of the prominent features of historical Baptist theology.  What was King’s view of the church and her mission? What was King’s view of society?

This paper will attempt to answer these questions by proceeding in three parts. First, King’s theological biography will be briefly examined; who influenced him? Second, the main body of the paper will be concerned with King’s articulation of the relationship between the church and state: i.e. his social theology.[6]  Finally, the paper will conclude with an assessment of King’s theology. How can one apply it while maintaining fidelity to both the Christian witness and the Baptist heritage?

King’s Theological Biography, in Brief

King was born in Atlanta, GA, in 1929. His family had a rich heritage in the black church, King’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather being pastors.[7] King notes that he admired his father for “his genuine Christian character,” which he also associates with his father’s “interest in civil rights.”[8] King was raised in a conservative church from the age of five, although at age thirteen he did begin to exhibit a departure from traditional orthodoxy.[9]

This departure became more marked after King enrolled at Morehouse in 1944. He writes, “It was then that the shackles of fundamentalism were removed from my body. More and more I could see a gap between what I had learned in Sunday school and what I was learning in college. My studies had made me skeptical, and I could not see how many of the facts of science could be squared with religion.”[10] He faced the Kantian dilemma: how does one square religious faith with empirical facts? He sums up the problem in this way, “I wondered whether it could serve as a vehicle to modern thinking, whether religion could be intellectually respectable as well as emotionally satisfying.”[11]

He began to integrate his view of social responsibility and theology after he enrolled at Crozer Seminary in 1948. King first encountered the work of Walter Rauschenbusch at Crozer, and, as he puts it, “[Rauschenbusch] left an indelible imprint on my thinking by giving me a theological basis for the social concern which had already grown up in me as a result of my early experiences.”[12] Rauschenbusch put into words what King had intuited—that is, a necessary and essential relationship between God and the world, between the church and society.

Crozer also exposed him to the lectures of A. J. Muste, who first implanted the ideas of pacifism as a means for effecting change. Although “I had about despaired of the power of love in solving social problems … [and] thought the only way we could solve our problem of segregation was an armed revolt,” King was thoroughly convinced by a sermon of Mordecai Johnson, Howard University’s president, who extolled Gandhi and his ideas.[13] Furthermore, in a critique of Marxism, King states that “constructive ends can never give absolute moral justification to destructive means,”[14] which principle he later takes as a justification for nonviolence.[15]

While his time at Crozer came to a close, King read the works of Reinhold Niebuhr. Although King found Niebuhr’s appraisal of nonviolence to be lacking, he praises Niebuhr for enabling him “to recognize the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil.”[16] Niebuhr reminded King that, while humanity has potential for exceeding goodness, only an overwhelming naivety leaves this assessment as is; humanity is capable of as much evil as good. After his graduation from Crozer, King attended and graduated from Boston University’s School of Theology.

King’s Theology of Church and State: the Beloved Community

Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel

King’s theology was heavily informed by Rauschenbusch. For this reason, it is necessary to briefly explain the contours of Rauschenbusch’s theology. Rauschenbusch, the German Baptist, often faces criticism that he promulgated the “social gospel.” While this attribution is not without merit, one must set it against Rauschenbusch’s self-understanding as a Baptist minister himself. In his own words, he discovered during his final year of high school that “I ought to be a preacher and help to save souls.”[17] In 1884, Rauschenbusch wrote to a friend of his desire “to be a pastor, powerful with men, preaching to them Christ.”[18]

However, in 1889 he began to make a new emphasis. In his pastorate in Manhattan, Rauschenbusch saw firsthand the swaths of professing Christians who suffered, unable to provide for themselves. Pitts states it well when he says, “Rauschenbusch’s discovery of the social gospel was born in the heart of a pastor. [He] was drawn to the idea of working for the salvation of society by creating a more equitable economy.”[19] As Rauschenbusch understood it, the consistent ministry of the gospel necessarily entails that the minister involve himself in the physical, economic, and social condition of his people. At least in this way, Rauschenbusch prefigured the liberation theology movement. However, he roots these “prophetic” exhortations in the Anabaptists, whom he considers the forebears of Baptists. [20] The gospel concerns not only the eternal salvation of an individual but also the historical “salvation” of a society, by realigning it with the will of God.[21]

King’s Theology and His Appropriation of Rauschenbusch

It would be disingenuous to understand King apart from his particular position as a black Christian in the United States. The African American church has come to understand itself in ways that are foundationally different from the white church. In a manner that mirrors the original centrality of the church in Puritan communities, the African American church “not only gave spiritual edification but acted as an agency of social control, a center for the arts, the coordinating body for economic cooperation and business enterprise, an educational institution and a political forum.”[22] The African American church has outlasted the white church in this formational role in much of society. After slavery was disbanded, the force of cohesion in African American communities was the church. In their ostracization and segregation, African Americans saw in the church a recapitulation of the Exodus narrative.[23]

Within this tradition King found his religious roots. To wit, King saw his work as a pastor and social activist to be in line with Moses, ushering the African American community to seize the Promised Land, which he associates with “the realization of justice within history.”[24] King challenges the “closed memory” of the Exodus, reimagining it for the contemporary (African American) church.[25] Selby writes:

The Exodus was a persistent them in King’s rhetoric throughout his career as spokesperson for the civil rights movement. Blacks were the chosen people of God, languishing in the Egypt of racial oppression. Significant events marking progress toward justice—the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision and the successful boycott of Montgomery’s buses—were represented as the crossing of the Red Sea. The difficulties that blacks faced in pursuing racial equality were the travails of the wilderness, and the vision toward which they labored was the Promised Land of integration and brotherhood. From the beginning of his leadership to the final address of his life, King called on the ancient religious drama as a way of creating a symbolic context in which his hearers could experience their present circumstances, representing their campaign for racial justice as the enactment of a modern day Exodus.[26]

Ivory points out that King’s rhetoric “may be characterized as sustained reflection upon concrete, social action in light of a commitment to a specific theological vision.”[27] This theological vision was a reintegration of a society built on “truth, justice, freedom, and righteousness,” in the effort toward which the church fulfilled “King’s theology of radical involvement.”[28] The church had a mandate to represent the ideal community to society at large. This “beloved community, where the virtues of love, justice, and peace become normative for every conceivable relationship,” is the perfection of human society.[29]

The intersection of the church and the state is the locus of God’s activity within society. The in-breaking of God occurs where the church demonstrates the way of Christ to the world—the way of justice, mercy, righteousness, and “redemptive suffering.”[30] The church counteracts the prevailing ethos of secular culture precisely in its courageous meekness during suffering. By not enforcing the will of God (cf. Matt. 26.47 – 56), the church demonstrates the surpassing goodness of the way of Christ, awaiting future vindication while (non-violently) fighting against structures that contradict the Kingdom of God.

King grounds his civil rights struggle in the ethic of love, which he finds personified in Christ. The nonviolent method he appropriated from Gandhi, but “it was Christ who furnished the spirit and motivation of the movement. Love exemplified by Jesus Christ provided the regulating ideal. Nonviolence as exemplified by Gandhi served as the technique.”[31] Because King keyed on the love of Christ as the “regulating ideal,” he could say that the church should engage culture, demonstrating this love to those who do not recognize love in Christ. The highest form of love was the agape love of the cross, which love could be mirrored in the day-to-day redemptive suffering of the church in the face of injustice. King contended that such love could compel men to cease their own injustice and embrace the beloved community—although it would not necessarily do so. [32]

King’s position as a pastor allowed him to articulate these positions from the perspective of the Christian faith. Like Rauschenbusch, King’s view of society—secular and sacred—entailed a necessary imposition of the proper manifestation of society (i.e., the church) onto the improper (i.e., the state).  King did not hold his social and spiritual concerns in tension—much less in contradiction. There is an inescapable relationship between the two spheres. The church has a divine mandate, in King’s conception, to rejigger society in a way that more accurately reflects the nature of God, which he identifies with a personalism.[33]

Applying King’s Theology Today

How can contemporary Baptists appropriate the insights of King without necessarily endorsing his presuppositions? It is no secret that King drifted from his fundamentalist roots into a more liberal Christianity.[34] However, all truth being God’s truth, insofar as King has touched on the truth of the relationship of the church to the state, how can committed evangelicals “spoil the Egyptians” here?

While evangelical Baptists would be remiss to forsake their witness as a counter-cultural community, perhaps a first step would be to reimagine the secular society not so much in terms of an enemy as of a victim. Although individuals do stand opposed to Christ, one finds much to commend in King’s ethic of love, which he believes motivates men—in their humanity—to embrace the love of Christ when they see individuals suffering unjustly for another (cf. Matt. 27.54). This would involve a deeper identification of Christians, particularly white Christians, with the economic and social suffering of others. Such an identification would be especially highlighted in non-missiological circumstances, although evangelical Baptists would probably be unwilling to take that path.

More fundamentally, Baptists may have to reemphasize the nature of man as soul and body, united in an inviolable bond. Once that move has been made, Baptists would begin to emphasize not only “soul-winning” but also “mercy ministries” as legitimate, necessary, and essential works of the church as the church.

[1] Compare Charles M. Blow, “Fury after Ferguson,” New York Times, November 26, 2014, accessed December 16, 2015,; and Ben Carson, “Baltimore Rioting is ‘Truly Senseless.’” Time Magazine, April 28, 2015, accessed December 16, 2015,

[2] Ivory, Luther D. Toward a Theology of Radical Involvement: the Theological Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997), 39 – 40.

[3] Ivory, 65.

[4] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 892 – 894.

[5] See, for example, H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951).

[6] One must be careful to differentiate between “social theologies” as such and Boff’s reading of “social theology,” which reading antedates King by two decades. What may become clear is that King’s articulation differs fundamentally from Boff’s contention that social theology is “a pure and simple transposition of the rules of private morality to the political sphere.” Boff, Clodovis. Theology and Praxis: Epistemological Foundations. Translated by Robert R. Barr (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987).

[7] Lee, Hak Joon. “Political Spirituality of Martin Luther King Jr.: Formation, Praxis, and Contribution,” Journal of Religious Thought 60, no. 1 (2008): 180.

[8] King, Jr., Martin Luther. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson (New York: Warner Books, 1998), 4 – 5.

[9] Ibid, 6. Specifically, the bodily resurrection of Christ.

[10] Ibid, 15.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 18.

[13] Ibid, 23.

[14] Ibid, 20.

[15] Cf. Ivory, 37, 44, 62, and 73.

[16] King, 27.

[17] Quoted in Bill Pitts, “Why Baptist History Matters: Rauschenbusch and Latourette,” American Baptist Quarterly 28, no. 1 (2010): 150.

[18] Ibid, 151.

[19] Ibid, 152.

[20] Ibid, 155.

[21] Ibid, 152.

[22] Calhoun-Brown, Allison. “While Marching to Zion: Otherworldliness and Racial Empowerment in the Black Community,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37, no. 3 (1998): 427.

[23] See Keith D. Miller, “Second Isaiah Lands in Washington, DC: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ as Biblical Narrative and Biblical Hermeneutic,” Rhetoric Review 26, no. 4 (2007): 407.

[24] Ivory, 31.

[25] Miller, 409.

[26] Selby, 10.

[27] Ivory, 44.

[28] Ibid, 123.

[29] Ibid, 46.

[30] Ibid, 73.

[31] Ibid, 37.

[32] Mikelson, Thomas J. S. “Cosmic Companionship: the Place of God in the Moral Reasoning of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” The Journal of Religious Ethics 18, no. 2 (1990): 10.

[33] Ibid, 7 – 9.

[34]Ibid, 12.

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