Love in Action: The Theology of Martin Luther King Jr. in the World Today

by Robert Gordon

Posted: 16 Jan 2017

"In these days of worldwide confusion, there is a dire need for men and women who will courageously do battle for truth."[1]

Today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States, we remember the meaning behind this great man's life. He was never a politician, even though his life had great political consequence. He was a citizen and a preacher who wanted the Church to rise above being merely a "weak and ineffectual trumpet making uncertain sounds"[2] and redefined for many what it meant to be a Christian. With the world today appearing so uncertain and detached from a sense of mutual responsibility we call the common good, it is worth hearing his message once again.

The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is lasting because he reminds us to strive for a lofty ideal of what we could be. His great civil rights successes are an assurance that the prophetic voice carries with it more than just words, that we can speak of truth and love without reservation and by doing so make a real difference. Secure in the knowledge that lasting change can result when we invoke the glory of God and walk the path of faith without feeling ashamed. Indeed not just that we can do so, but in times of great conflict and exploitation we are duty bound and must do so with all the strength and wisdom that we can muster.

His theology is based primarily on the power of truth and love to transform the world around us, particularly when built upon a solid core of peace and forgiveness. Today, we often hear that we have entered a 'post-truth' world. This would be anathema to a man who felt that it was through the light of truth that progress is made and darkness overcome. He was also deeply aware that in a time that appears to hold great wealth, "our abundance has brought us neither peace of mind nor serenity of spirit."[3] The structural injustice of poverty and inequality, a struggle that remains as important today as it has ever been, was every bit as much the focus for his attention as segregation.

It's wonderful that he preached at St Paul's Cathedral in 1964, on his way to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. A newly reprinted collection of sermons released by Penguin reintroduces us to the words of a man passionate about the role of faith and prayer in creating a better vision of the world. He calls us to an active faith that works in our daily lives to transform the world proactively and courageously, becoming "open receptacles ... into which God's strength [can] be freely poured."[4] Such faith can makes us feel truly alive, participating in society rather than accepting a sedated lifestyle of indifference.

King is admired because he assertively stood up to injustice, reminding us that we are not helpless in the face of adversity and have the capacity within our own souls to generate a more equal and just socioeconomic reality. His theology highlights that true power does not rely on government or industry, but can come from an unwavering dedication to truth and love that each and every one of us has the capacity to be transformed by. Even more so, that our redemption cannot merely be dictated by laws and regulations but must come from what he called 'unenforceable obligations':

"... unenforceable obligations are beyond the reach of the laws of society. They concern inner attitudes, genuine person-to-person relations, and expressions of compassion which law books cannot regulate and jails cannot rectify. Such obligations are met by one's commitment to an inner law, written on the heart. Man-made laws assure justice, but a higher law produces love."[5]

Finding a way to continuously renew our commitment to this inner law lies at the core of his theology and, along with many examples of empowered citizens throughout history that he drew upon, inspired the non-violent action that he is known for. Much of his preaching was specifically on the obligation that Christians have to understand that we each take some responsibility for the injustices of the world - that through wrong action, or inaction, we often serve to exacerbate suffering. If we are to live up to his message then we must seek to correct our own flaws even as we rally against the destructive actions of others. That we mustn't just loudly preach and pontificate, but should always strive to act with mindful devotion and self-reflection.

The path that King laid out for us combines powerful words with transformative deeds and builds upon forgiveness rather than retribution; of peace over conflict. His theology emphasises the power of love for what is right and true, as opposed to corrupting hatred for the people responsible for the ills of the world. He strongly believed that by walking the path of love in action we can overcome evil deeds while accepting the inherent goodness of those who mistakenly conducted them; preaching that the lasting way to destroy an enemy is to find friendship with them. His legacy is a living example of how faith can provide the foresight to know that the strength of the soul can overcome violence in all its forms.

Whilst standing up against the injustices we see, we must always remember that "returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars"[6]. The message that King repeated time and again was that by waving the banner of love we seek a more complete response that undermines the cycles of violence and works towards redirecting them in total not just in part. He recognised that this was a difficult thing to do, but as the world around him became more chaotic and less certain he knew that it was an increasingly necessary thing to do. This is what makes his sermons so timeless and one of the key lessons to be learned is that we must find the humility and compassion to see the totality of those we come into contact with. There is more to a person than the content of their words or the outcomes of their deeds, there is also the potential of their being. Great transformations can result through recognising the best in others and realising that "forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude."[7]

The encouraging fact of today's world is that we do not need to wait for another individual figure as transformative as Martin Luther King Jr. (although there are many out there). Together we can, through technology and global communications, build a collective voice that uplifts the discourse of our time and feeds back into the daily actions of all who hear its call and contribute to its meaning. By actively participating we can overcome the tendency to merely be "thermometers that record or register the temperature of majority opinion" and each play a part in being "thermostats that transform and regulate the temperature of society."[8]

As we face a period of rapid and unsettling change, there is no better time to hear this legendary preacher's words spoken passionately as you watch a recording or read them on the page. To feel the universal truth of what is being shared and the unwavering love that it is born of, recognising in our faith an obligation to act for a more just and loving world. Martin Luther King Jr. is revered because he had a dream, a vision of a better existence that could be achieved when we all acted as if it were possible. He believed that there is a role for all of us in creating the future and that our participation should be seen as a duty-bound obligation of the Christian life.

Our world today seems to be desperately lacking in uplifting visions of what we could become, and so it is important to remind ourselves - particularly on this day - of what it looks like when someone truly has one:

"Midnight is a confusing hour when it is difficult to be faithful. The most inspiring word that the church may speak is that no midnight long remains. The weary traveller by midnight who asks for bread is really seeking the dawn. Our eternal message of hope is that dawn will come."[9]

[1] King Jr., M. L. 2017, A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings, Penguin Classics, p. 20

[2] Ibid. p. 16

[3] Ibid. p. 77

[4] Ibid. p. 135

[5] Ibid. p. 29

[6] Ibid. p. 49

[7] Ibid. p. 35

[8] Ibid. p. 14

[9] Ibid. p. 66

About this author

Robert Gordon was the Manager of St Paul's Institute from 2009 - 2017.

Carmel McNaught - Posted: 27 Jan 2017

Thank you for this piece. My thoughts on reading this article are that now is a time where foregrounding the work of the heroes that have come from the United States is vital. The current US administration seems bent on destroying global, inclusive links between people of different nations, beliefs and cultures. An effective form of protest is to continually share the stories of US people who have lived - and died - working for a fairer, more just, and peaceful world.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.