Monday, January 17, 2022

The Lord works in mysterious ways

A piece on Dr. King's theology from this time six years ago holds up well, I think.  

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Panama, in keeping with our annual custom of running a picture of Dr. King in a hat. Via Relaford Club.

Let's not leave the long Martin Luther King Day weekend without our annual tribute visit to the Bizarro Dr. King who usually surfaces in the rightwing media around this time of the year, who if he had been alive would certainly have disapproved of the #BlackLivesMatter movement because they are the "sons and daughters of Stokely Carmichael and, to some extent, even Huey P. Newton" (former moderately good detective novelist Roger L. Simon, via Shakezula), and of the ongoing imaginary War on Police (Fox & Friends, via David at C&L); and Donald Trump, at the Dr. King tributes at Liberty University in the appropriately named Lynchburg, VA., praised the size of the crowd that came to see him as

an honor in terms of Martin Luther King," Trump said. "We're dedicating the record to the late, great Martin Luther King." Trump made no other mention of the civil rights leader.

In my usual stomping grounds at the National Review they haven't been able to come up with anything new this year, but they reran a piece by Lee Habeeb from January 2013:

King’s Media Makeover
The Left, uncomfortable with God talk, ignores MLK’s deep devotion to Christ.
Listen carefully to all the celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. this week. Listen very carefully. There is one aspect of King’s life that you won’t hear much about, no matter how hard you try: his devotion to his faith, his devotion to God, his devotion to Jesus Christ.
Listen carefully and you’ll hear endless mention of Doctor Martin Luther King — but little if any mention of the Reverend Martin Luther King.

Well, I for one didn't think he was a proctologist; I know what his doctorate was in. And I think it ought to be clear when people note that he was the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta they mostly recognize that there's something Christian about that. Of course there's the question of what kind of Christian he was, I guess:

To King, the Bible wasn’t some strange old book that didn’t have relevance in the modern world. It was God’s word. It was a book that was — and always will be — relevant because it expresses eternal principles and eternal truths.

But that doesn't mean he believed, as Robert James "Be" Scofield explained in a lovely article in Tikkun (November-December 2009), in the Virgin Birth (a "pre-scientific world view"), the Incarnation—

The orthodox attempt to explain the divinity of Jesus in terms of an inherent metaphysical substance within him seems to me quite inadequate. To say that the Christ, whose example of living we are bid to follow, 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 ..." So that the orthodox view of the divinity of Christ is in my mind quite readily denied. 

or the Resurrection of Jesus, 2000 years ago or in the eschatological future. He may have been a Baptist, but he was no hardshell biblical literalist Baptist. In fact—oh hell, as Donald Trump might say (he did say "hell" at the Liberty U. festivities, causing a certain dismay), he wasn't a Baptist; he was a Unitarian, or at any rate Coretta Scott was, and he followed her to Unitarian services in Boston when he was doing his divinity studies there. But

He ultimately faced the reality that he would probably not be able to play a role in the civil rights movement in this tradition and thus he became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, shortly thereafter being elected to lead the Montgomery bus boycott.

This is not to say he wasn't a religious man! But he would never have been accepted as religious by the Scribes and Pharisees of Liberty U. and the National Review, who demand a certain doctrinal rigidity that seemed stupid to King.

He stated that Christ is more concerned with how we treat our neighbors, our attitudes toward racial justice, and living a high ethical life than he is with long processionals, knowledge of creeds, or the beautiful architecture of a church. According to King, the church had strayed from Christ.

And in the contest between the Pauline theology of grace and the theology of action of Jesus's brother James, he certainly fell into the latter (“Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works,” James 2:18). Whereas your Christian conservatives always rely excessively on the faith idea, and the more or less random descent of grace on the good and the wicked alike, and the thought that it doesn't take much work to be a Christian, because your personal bud Jesus will take care of it all for you, like a friend who knows the right people and can always find tickets to whatever you want to see.

Would he have crusaded against abortion, or same-sex marriage? We can't know, but we do know that the liberal Christian tradition to which he really belonged has been in the lead in accepting these things. The Christianity of Ted Cruz just is not the only kind, and it's not even the most Christian.

To me there's a good Christianity and a bad Christianity, and Dr. King's animated by the love of justice and care of the neighbor of the Jewish tradition and the deep nonviolence of Jesus (alongside Tolstoy and Gandhi) represents the good kind.

Habeeb writes, with reference to King's religiosity,

That’s what drives totalitarians crazy about Christians: They believe that no God shall come before theirs, even if his name is the State. That’s what really drives liberals crazy about Jesus. His followers believe He is the answer to their problems, not government.
Jesus lives. 
Jesus saves.
That’s why liberals hate Jesus, even the ones who say they love him.

But he also acknowledges King as a liberal who said he loved Jesus.

We know what he would have said about the economy. King was a social-justice liberal, and he cared passionately about the poor. Indeed, he spent the last years of his life fighting for the poor.

So I'm a little confused about what he's trying to say. It sounds a hell of a lot like "So King hated Jesus, Q.E.D." A peculiar message, in the context of the argument that King was more like a conservative after all. To the National Review writer, the political argument is so heavy that it just pushes the theological argument underground.

I know another story, you know, about a young black man who cast about for a church in his neighborhood without too much concern for its theological underpinnings and more for how useful belonging to it could be in the kind of community organizing work he needed, spiritually, to be doing. That was Barack Obama, who would get in some kind of trouble 20 years later for not having paid sufficient attention to what the minister was saying. I'm not saying he was in some sense equivalent to King—nowhere near as radical, for one thing, and not as imbued with the sacred. But the Lord certainly does work in mysterious ways, doesn't he?

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