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"Our loyalties must become ecumenical": Martin Luther King, Jr., as a pluralist theologian.


Contemporary philosophers, historians, and theologians of pluralism describe a theme of a revolving climate in the middle of the twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries: an age of global religious pluralism. (1) During this time period, scholars debated about an increased awareness of the theoretical and methodological implications and limitations of a solely Euro-American ethnocentric gaze in the study of religious, racial, and ethnic diversity. (2) Jarich Oosten observed that "it took western researchers a long time to overcome their ethnocentric biases and to attain an attitude of basic respect for other religions... the ideological export of western religion, values, and knowledge is still a major issue in relations between western countries and the third world." (3)

As an illustration, key terms such as "pluralist" and "theologian" are loaded with a host of Western assumptions. What they may mean and how they are defined often obscures how and to whom the labels maybe properly applied. (4) Oftentimes, the terms "pluralist" and "pluralism" may suggest individuals who operate from a relativist paradigm: Each difference between, among, and by religions is subsumed into an artificial whole. The influences of Enlightenment logic, Immanuel Kant's epistemology, and analytic British philosopher of religion John Hick's pluralistic hypothesis are pointed to as examples of epistemological relativism and monistic perspectivalism. (5) Pluralism scholar William Connolly has, however, provided a workable designation of a pluralist as one who cherishes and engages cultural and religious diversity along their multilayered dimensions. (6)

The category of "theologian" is often utilized in a high-brow way in the Western academy. Famed black theologian James Cone wrote, "It seems clear that the major obstacle in viewing Martin Luther King, Jr., as a creative theologian... is the narrow, elitist, and racist definition of theology that limits its methods and subject matter to problems that whites identify." (7) Although some scholars do not even consider King--as evident in Cone's, Paul R. Garber's, and L. Harold DeWolf's corrective essays--a credible theologian, (8) theologian Gordon Kaufman insists that any and all meditation upon the meaning of religious signs, symbols, and traditions is an act of theologizing. (9)

In this essay, the major argument is that King was both a theologian and a pluralist par excellence. If King was not a pluralist theologian, then no one else deserves such distinction, either. He analyzed, questioned, and preached about the gospel, (10) the Bible, (11) and Jesus Christ, (12) as well as nonAbrahamic religions. This essay authenticates and extends some of the valuable scholarship completed on the subject to date. (13)

To this end, King's primary sources are used to reconstruct dimensions of his pluralist theology. His pluralist views and values are placed in critical conversation with contemporary pluralism scholarship. The complexity and imaginativeness of King's theology of religions are highlighted--including how, when, and why religious diversity became an essential part of his theology and ethics. His commentary on multiple religious faiths was neither episodic nor ephemeral. (14) He transcended the classical dyads of ecumenism: Christianity and Islam, (15) Christianity and Judaism, (16) and Christianity and Gandhism. (17) He emphasized critical responsiveness. He preached a "world house" message. King can, thus, be seen as a universalist pluralist theologian, one whose theology does not fit neatly into the typical classifications of relativism and difference.

Overall, the aim of this King and ecumenism investigation is to encourage other scholars who do scholarship from below--from the perspective of the marginalized and oppressed--to continue to underscore the need for more indigenous peoples' paradigms and histories in debates about ethnocentric biases and respect for different religions in the study of religious pluralism.

Stock], 2013), pp. 131-151. I. King as an Avant-Garde Pluralist Theologian: Beyond Traditional Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue

King was an avant-garde pluralist theologian. For one thing, he was raised as a Southern fundamentalist, but he realized early in his life that he needed to learn about and learn from other faith traditions besides Christianity. For another, he was a fervent interreligious interlocutor, and he frequently used the language of pluralism. His universal horizon exceeded Jewish-Christian Muslim dialogue. In this manner, King's theology and ethics were deliberately informed by various religious commitments and communities. (18)

Unlike noteworthy Euro-American pluralist theologians (19) King did not offer a sustained discussion on religious diversity in one or two of his main works. He dealt with a host of issues (such as "poverty, racism, and militarism",20) but he realized, as did contemporary ecumenical scholars, that Christians living in a religiously diverse world could no longer ignore other religions. In graduate school, he grasped, "To discuss Christianity without mentioning other religions would be like discussing the greatness of the Atlantic Ocean without the slightest mention of the many tributaries that keep it flowing." (21) Essentially, graduate school helped King come to the conclusion that Christianity cannot be understood in isolation from other faith traditions.

Although the term was not in vogue in the 1950's and 1960's, King actually used "pluralism" within the context of the need for racial and religious harmony. In responding positively in a Playboy interview about the United States Supreme Court's decision to end mandatory school prayer, he said, "In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom?... When I saw Brother Wallace going up to Washington to testify against the decision at the congressional hearings, it only strengthened my conviction that the decision was right." (22)

Regarding the court case, King intimated that opposition to the decision to end school prayer had racist motives, seeking white hegemony not only over race, or whiteness, but also over religion, or Protestantism. (23) Agreeing with the decision that school prayer should be ruled unconstitutional, King supposed that, in a predominantly Christian nation, every member of society should have an equal say when standing before the law. In all, he thought that pluralist values are actualized in community with the American Other.

While fighting for minority rights in the U.S., King rose above his national borders by envisaging an international community. (24) His dream signified the need to work to realize the dream both "that America can indeed be a truly pluralistic society, and that [the world] can be a place... where peace" (25) and justice become normative for all. In a famous public address, "A Time to Break Silence," King said that allegiance should be to everyone in the world where "neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all [persons]." (26) As a cosmopolitan freedom fighter, King reimagined how novel constructive interactions between different races, ethnicities, classes, and nations could bring new awareness for liberation in a globalizing world. He supported those who yearned for an ever-expanding sense of community with the Other. (27) To marshal support for his broad pluralist vision, King vividly designated, through word-picture parings, his "community of Others"--a "world-wide fellowship." (28) Despite personally experiencing the intractableness of neocolonialism, King still mustered the courage to imagine a world of peaceful co-existence--a world that had many names, such as "the world house"29 and "beloved community."30 Speaking about the former, he wrote, "We have inherited a large house, a great 'world house' in which we have to live together--black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu--a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace."31

Choosing the metaphor of a house, King communicated his communitarian vision of a world where opposing ideologies and cultural factions would no longer live in isolation from one another. The image of a house evokes an intimacy of belonging: a spirit of filial piety. King paired antagonistic groups and their ideologies together within the context of an enduring bond of love and loyalty. He believed that, if social change were to be achieved, then the racial and religious "strife of opposites" that divided instead of uniting people needed to end. In essence, he wished for estranged communities, traditions, and groups (which may or may not have been legitimately wronged) to be reconciled: "in the final analysis... our loyalties must become ecumenical." (32)

To put it another way, King taught that the different values of different people could not be realized in exclusive sectional enclaves. The values that different people choose to live by are indeed community-specific. They are developed within specific traditions. Yet, these values are achieved in communion with Others outside of one's community.

On this note, King was different from many ecumenical leaders during his time. Speaking to the freshness of his ecumenism, Hans Margull observed:
   A new feature of the ecumenical movement in America found
   expression in the demonstration marches for which Dr. Martin Luther
   King, Jr had set the example. His martyrdom in 1968 only
   intensified the struggle. These marches brought together people
   from the South and North, from widely differing church traditions,
   not only Christians but also Jews and humanists, and pointed the
   way to co-operation in faith and action between Protestants and
   Catholics which sometimes far transcended the achievements arrived
   at hitherto by the ecumenical movement. (33)

During his civil-rights campaign, King worked closely with leading Jewish, humanist, Buddhist, Christian, secular, and Indian activists across the country and the world. For example, the Selma march crystallized King's global ecumenical vision and pragmatic leadership ability in galvanizing freedom-loving people from every race, religion, and region of the world to work for higher, social-justice aims. On March 7, 1965, he formally requested that racial and religious leaders from across the nation join the peaceful, nonviolent march in Selma. (34)

Thus, King not only engaged in Christian-Jewish and Christian-Muslim dialogue but also was engrossed in a wide array of constructive relationships with other religious traditions and leaders around the world. A devout Christian man, he praised the vitality of Indian spirituality, too: "the wonderful spiritual quality of the Indian people." (35) By studying Gandhi and the Jain ethic of ahimsa (a proactive commitment to self-valuing that preserves all life forms), he personified Indian spirituality. Believing in the power of ahimsa, King cast nonviolence as a way of life--a way of changing both the world and oneself. He thought that people were no better than the methods they used. On the whole, King consciously embraced Christian and non-Christian religious community ideals beyond the Black Atlantic--communities as far away as Asia.

II. King's Particularities as a Pluralist Theologian: Uniqueness, Sophistication, and Imaginativeness

King's pluralist horizon is unique, sophisticated, and imaginative. It exhibits a distinguishable theory-practice tension and code-switching dimension. In addition, his universal horizon is beyond a traditional exclusivism-inclusivism and unity of religions paradigm.

Some scholars suppose that, because King's civil-rights activities did not focus on abstract thought but on everyday concerns, he should not, therefore, be considered a striking theoretician. However, what is unique about King's brand of pluralism is his intentional creative balance between theory and practice. Africana theorist Barbara Christian suggests that African diaspora people do not divide theoretical criticism and practical criticism. (36) King lived his praxis. One example is King's personal admiration of the Hindu leader Gandhi. Thinking highly of Gandhi, King claimed: "Gandhi not only spoke against the [racialized] caste system but he acted against it." (37)

In this activist-spirit, King had a tremendous impact on different councils and different churches. In 1968, for example, he swayed the World Council of Churches' fourth assembly meeting in Uppsala, Sweden, the agenda for which reflected the heightened race tensions in the U.S. at the time. Two years prior, ecumenical leaders had led a section on "The Ecumenical Witness against Racism," linking the Kitwe Conference's stress on the need for the church to end racial oppression through economic and political means. King also inspired the National Conference on Religion and Race (consisting ofU.S. Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant faith leaders) meeting on January 14-17,1963, to address the race problem in the U.S.

Taking full advantage of his national and international standing, King called for new foundations of intrafaith relations, underlining social thought and action. He understood that a unified multireligious front would be needed to challenge the status quo of racial and religious bigotry. (38) As a global peacemaker, he intended to attract people from various cultural and faith communities around the world--he understood that he could not change the world alone. Consequently, the marches provided a roadmap for continued inter- and intrafaith cooperation between different religious and ethnic groups. (39) By and large, King assumed that theories needed to be applied to life.

Accordingly, King's greatest political pluralism gift was his ability to connect the African American struggle for civil rights to other social-justice movements around the globe. When he spoke about his transformative experience while in India, he said that "the strongest bond of fraternity was the common cause of minority and colonial peoples in America, Africa and Asia struggling to throw off racialism and imperialism." (40) King concentrated his pluralist efforts toward the ongoing struggle to resist universal whiteness because he held that people of color needed to overcome internal racism and learn to love themselves for who they are. (41)

Further, in a telegram to Cesar Chavez, King noted that similarities exist between the African American struggle and the Latin American farm workers' movement. He stated, "Our separate struggles are really one--a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity." (42) King understood the need to unify in order to dismantle imperialism, which he saw as a chief cause of self-alienation and the alienation of the Other. Never succumbing to Jean-Francois Lyotard's and Jean Baudrillard's postmodern disillusionment with progress, King approached global pluralism with a guarded optimism.

To lead a successful pluralist campaign, King practiced "critical responsiveness." Connolly defined critical responsiveness as a cultivated crosscultural form of communication that emphasizes a judicious attentiveness and charitable generosity between groups to achieve legitimate rights. (43) Through critical responsiveness, King's code-switching enabled him to work successfully on the ground with the American religious mainstream (such as with other Protestant believers), (44) as well as with American religious outsiders (such as humanists, Buddhists, and Hindus).

For instance, King incorporated Hindu caste-identity in two sermons, one at a Jewish temple and the other at his home church. (45) At first reluctant, but eventually agreeing with an Indian administrator who called him a Hindu untouchable, King claimed, "Yes, [indeed] I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable." (46) By intuitively listening and appropriately responding, King transformed into an "African American Hindu." Nonetheless, he was neither literally changing religions nor replacing his African American identity with a Hindu-Indian identity. He never surrendered his racial or ethnic identity, nor did he ever lose his Christian faith and identity. But, King was not merely engaging in rhetorical flourishes. His statement positioned his audience to identify with the African American or Hindu oppressed peoples of the world. Through proper word-choice, King put critical responsiveness into praxis.

As with other Africana theologians and pluralists, King mastered using the sociocultural reality around himself. (47) He turned to multiple sources, traditions, and communities for insights and inspiration: "I personally have been deeply moved and motivated," he confessed, "by the inspiration of a teacher like Gandhi." (48) He was influenced by his black church tradition, as well as by many other religious thinkers. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh also swayed King. Hanh abetted King to denounce the War in Vietnam. Despite the backlash King received, he condemned the Vietnam War, calling America the greatest perpetrator of terrorism in the world. Leaning on such individuals as Gandhi and Hanh, King adopted the teachings, values, and perspectives from the varieties of human faiths around the world in the hope that he could make the world a more humane place.

Thus, King's pragmatic attitude toward his Christian faith and his approach to other people's faiths should not be understood within the context of a simplistic exclusivism-universalism paradigm: a position suggesting that, if one is exclusively a particular religion, then that is all that one is--out of concern or fear that the alternative position is one in which one's religious identity would be subsumed into an undifferentiated, universal identity of "nondifference." The cultural relativistic quandary inherent within the traditional Western binary exclusivism-universalism religious position is an incorrect predicament. (49) The opposite of an extreme-exclusivism, some mistakenly believe, is a radical solipsism or hard skepticism.

As a case in point, King was exclusively Christian, but he was inclusively open to the truth and values from other faiths that shaped him. In Strength to Love, he stated that Christians must never capitulate or renounce their faith to any time-bound non-Christian ideology. King had preached that "at the center of Christianity stands the Christ who is now and ever shall be the highest revelation of God. He, more than any other person that has ever lived in history, reveals the true nature of God." (50) King never changed his faith for anyone or anything, including pressure from groups such as the Nation of Islam to do otherwise. (51) King's God was--to use S. Mark Heim's verbiage--his universal "wisdom and witness." King personally confessed, "I believe that God reveals Himself in all religions. Wherever we find truth we find the revelation of God, and there is some element of truth in all religions. This does not mean, however, that God reveals Himself equally in all religions. Christianity is an expression of the highest revelation of God." (52)

With that said, King's conception of world community was rooted in his own epistemological God- or Christ-centered lens, but his God language or christological language was meant to include non-Christians. (53) He deemed that intra- and interfaith dialogue do not require abandoning one's personal commitments and communities but, rather, expanding those commitments and communities to include those of other people. "As a move away from the 'multiplicity of denominations' within American Protestantism," King said that the tragedy was "that 'most of them are warring against each other with a claim to absolute truth.'" (54) In King's pluralism, people are sustained by multiple perspectives.

Aware of many religious texts and philosophical thinkers, King had a fondness for comparing and drawing upon various cultures and traditions, even though the cultural norms and values differed. Despite the dissimilarities, he determined that ethical, theological, and epistemological worldviews are enhanced by teachings from other traditions. Notably, King's appropriation of truths and values from other religions does not mean that the truths and values he borrowed remained exactly as in their original cultural context. In other words, his use of non-Christian religious and moral teachings from different traditions was not necessarily a misuse of indigenous traditions. Cultural theorist Talal Asad explained that cultural borrowing may or may not lead to total homogeneity or loss of authenticity. (55) By putting "old wine in new wineskins," or merging older religious traditions with newer ones, King created new identities, new languages, and new possibilities for praxis. In the same fashion that Gandhi applied Jesus' ethics found in the Sermon on the Mount, King combined Gandhi's idea of satyagraha in the spirit of Hegel's dialectic. (56)

In the long run, King's philosophy of religious diversity challenges the theory of the unity of religions. Postmodern scholar David Tracy's argument is similar to King's. Tracy has reasoned that religious traditions are "intrinsically plural" because their "socio-cultural-religious syntheses" constitutions can never finally be finished. (57) In the same vein, King judged that the notion of an unaltered religion is problematic because of the inherent malleability of religion. The "protean character of Mahayana Buddhism is another example of that universal historical law, viz., that that culture which conquers is in turn conquered. This universal law is especially true of religion.... 'The more crusading a religion is, the more it absorbs.' " (58) In es sence, King clarified that religious belief and practices necessarily become transformed in new contexts. (59) As with each culture, each religion appropriates, and thereby indigenizes, various cultural imports.

Discussing how religions "absorb" one another, King also wrote that "Christianity was truly indebted to the mystery religions." (60) Within his pluralist thought, there are not only similarities and differences in various religious traditions, but religions--as historically constructed phenomenon--are also an amalgam of different cultures and spiritualties that have come together over time. Religions, by their very constitution, cross-fertilize. Given these points, King comprehended that religions have within them various spiritualties, suggesting internal diversity of ways of worshiping and being religious. Taken as a whole, King's pragmatic religious pluralism calls attention to the intrinsically plural nature of religious phenomena and cultural identity.

III. King as a Universal Pluralist Theologian: Beyond Relativism and Difference

King was a "universalist pluralist theologian," or someone who consciously established general moral principles based on dissimilar religious traditions. He was neither a "pluralist" nor a "universalist" in the way that some problematize the terms. (61) Some scholars judge that the term "pluralist" or "universalist" connotes an inherent avoidance of any acknowledgement of the dissimilarities between or variations among religious traditions. (62) That is, much of current pluralism scholarship places an accent on the actual differences and purported different ends that exist among various religious traditions. The classic analogy of disparate religions climbing up the same mountain is turned on its head: people from different religions are actually traveling up different mountains altogether. For that reason, the different adherents will always reach different ultimate ends.

King was not an abstract universalist. He valued historical contexts and historical consciousness: "The first saying we notice in this [Declaration of Independence's] dream is an amazing universalism. It doesn't say 'some men,' it says all men.' It doesn't say 'all white men,' it says 'all men,' which includes black men. It doesn't say 'all Gentiles,' it says 'all men,' which includes Jews. It doesn't say 'all Protestants,' it says 'all men,' which includes Catholics." (63)

In spite of his rhetoric of inclusivism, King acknowledged how differences are embedded and imbued in group or culture analysis. He was very conscious

of the uniqueness of the American situation: "In one sense the civil rights movement in the United States is a special American phenomenon which must be understood in the light of American history and dealt with in terms of the American situation." (64) Based on this comment, King presumed paradigms were culturally constructed.

Furthermore, King did not believe that all religious beliefs and practices are exactly the same. Warren E. Steinkraus purported that King's philosophy of the interrelatedness of religions was not as offhanded as Gandhi's views. Gandhi proposed the distinctly Hindu view necessitated by the concept of Brahman-Atman: All religions point in the same direction and will eventually become one. (65)

Gandhi and King differed. King believed in unity and not uniformity between religions. While counseling a couple, King was asked: "Please help me and my wife to settle our religious differences. My understanding is that a man and his wife are to be as one in everything[.] I am a Baptist and she is a Seven-Day Adventist. She goes to church on Saturday and I go to church on Sunday. I don't think that is being as one and I don't think God is pleased." (66) To the query, King responded:
   The problem may be solved by concentrating on the unity of your
   religious views rather than accentuating your differences. There
   are certain basic points, such as the God concept, the lordship of
   Christ and the brotherhood of man that all Christians should be
   united on. Consequently, there can be unity where there is not
   uniformity. If you and your wife will concentrate on these points
   of unity and seek to minimize the ritualistic and doctrinal
   differences, you will come to see that you are not as far apart in
   your religious views as it appears to you on the surface. (67)

Essentially, King's response to the couple indicates that he grasped that real ritual and doctrinal differences exist between Christian communities. Like Connolly, King recognized, then, that religious differences (whether they are practices, rituals, or teachings) are actually quite deeply rooted. (68) Given that King deemed that real differences existed among Christians, it makes sense to conclude that he understood that differences existed between non-Christian and Christian faiths as well.

In either case, King's theology of religions does insinuate that various religious traditions can move toward certain valuable overlapping ends. He supposed that different faith communities could be fully integrated into his one "world house" or "beloved community," regardless of their different religious belief systems. Intentionally, King synthesized different secular or religionist thinkers' conflicting views about the divine (such as Alfred North Whitehead's, Henry Nelson Wieman's, and Paul Tillich's theologies) into his own thoughts about God. (69) Regarding the civil-rights movement, King similarly concluded that, "whatever name people gave to the suprarational force of the cause, there was an extra-human force at work that created a harmony out of the discord of the universe." (70)

Unlike other theologians of pluralism, King was not literally suggesting that God leads different religious adherents up to the same mountain top. Nevertheless, he did argue that an ultimate force was helping to bind people toward a more perfect moral order. He always trusted that the moral arc of the universe was bending toward justice. His universalism intimates that God calls people in the struggle against oppression, exploitation, and domination to fight for a common good: a unity but not a uniformity. (71) He preached, "I am not calling for uniformity, America; I am calling for unity. This narrow sectarianism is destroying the unity of the body of Christ. You must come to see that God is not a Baptist, God is not a Methodist, God is not a Presbyterian, God is not an Episcopalian. God is bigger than all of our denominations. You must come to see that, America." (72)

King was not indifferent to the sophistication of pluralist terminology, yet he evidently did not dwell on whether people referred to God as God, Allah, Jehovah, Brahma, Personal Being, or the Unmoved Mover. He presumed that the religious adherent who affirmed an impersonal Hindu God, such as Brahma, or a personal Hebrew God, such as Yahweh, will still be able to commit to social-justice agendas.

King's method of intra- and interreligious dialogue was not only the cross-pollination of traditions or schools of thought, but also the forging of a historically situated new paradigm. Similar to Jesus of Nazareth's parabolic word-pictures and Soren Kierkegaard's indirect communication, King mastered the art of "utopian projectionism": reimaging organic ideas and ideals between various religious and cultural traditions to motivate others to respond to the social order, out of the virtuous elements within their own traditions, for a common end. (73)

For this reason, King incorporated different religious teachings into his own religiocultural horizon. He wanted to help people to see their own worldviews in his worldview. His interaction with the Jewish community is but one example. King had extensive ties with the American Jewish community. He received the "Brotherhood Award" from and addressed the Congregation of B'nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side of New York. At the opening of a rabbinical meeting in which King was the keynote speaker, Rabbi Abraham Heschel extolled King's cross-cultural vision: "Martin Luther King is a voice, a vision and a way. I call upon every Jew to harken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way." (74) The Jewish community found their own teachings in King's teachings. King's pluralism denoted a common humanity and a collective purpose between traditions.

Accordingly, King's religious pluralism demonstrates that communication can occur between different religious systems and cultures around the world. Similar to process theologian John Cobb's thesis, King thought that different religious systems and traditions, despite their differences, can still communicate with one another. Different traditions have selected from the vastly complex world their truths and their dogmas. (75) Religions define themselves over, against, and in relationships to other religions. In this fashion, the existence of different doctrines, rituals, and practices in various religions does not necessarily mean that related and comparable things cannot be conveyed. In Cobb's and King's pluralism, different faiths can speak to one another across lines of difference.

King should not be inferred or implied to be a relativist--moral or otherwise. Quite the contrary, he was a "deep pluralist"--one who challenges forms of cultural, ethical, and theological relativism. His perspective on oppression is one clear example of his deep pluralism. King mirrored the ethos and pathos of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In speeches such as "I Have a Dream," he argued that racism, slavery, and colonialism were indisputably original sins of the American republic: "America has defaulted on this promissory note [of unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness] in so far as her citizens of color are concerned." (76) King rejected the white-washed nationalist religious American dream of one world united under the American flag and the American God; the "One Nation under God" slogan was co-opted by white racist nationalists. (77)

King personified Robert Wuthnow's argument that race informs nearly all of our thoughts about diversity, including religious and national differences, even when these differences are only marginally connected to race itself. (78) Just as the color line was the subtext of American culture in the twentieth century--as W. E. B. Du Bois predicted--for King, the religion line, though not totally distinct from the race line, profoundly challenged the Western world, too. King considered racism and colonialism, as well as other "isms" (such as materialism, fundamentalism, fascism, etc.) to be human sins and barriers to a negotiated peace and prosperity for all.

While King articulated the need for respect of the Other, he both appreciated and disagreed with religious, moral, and ethnic worldviews that ran counter to what he perceived to be universal moral norms. He critiqued humanist philosophy and atheism proper. (79) He was theologically trained in the liberal Christian tradition. As a result, King's style of African American Southern Christian pluralism was heterodoxy for his era. He disagreed with Christian fundamentalists, such as their position on doctrines of biblical literalism, (80) the divinity of Jesus the Christ, (81) and the Bible as the Word of God. (82) He even disputed aspects of Catholicism. In a message delivered to the Commission on Ecumenical Missions and Relations of the United Presbyterian Church, U.S. A., King said, "I must not stop with a criticism of Protestantism. I am [also] disturbed about Roman Catholicism." (83)

Sometimes it is suggested that it would have been beneficial if King had figured out a way to participate in more productive and permanent dialogue with the Nation of Islam. One of the reasons that King could not more openly welcome the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X was because of fundamental social, ethical, and religious differences in values. Both King and Malcolm X criticized other peoples' religions as well as each other's. King disagreed with Malcolm X on his unwillingness to accept the white Other and discourse on violence, too. (84)

As a universalist pluralist theologian, King did not subscribe to forms of cultural or religious relativism. He critiqued ideologies that promote hatred, exclusivism, and oppression of others. Nevertheless, he hoped that there could be unity-in-difference.


In order for conventional academic categories such as "pluralist" and "theologian" to be thoroughly reexamined in the age of religious pluralism, scholars must continue to include more African Americans, such as King, and other minorities in the conversation. Although King did not write a lot about religious pluralism (he said and wrote far more about racism, poverty, and economic injustice and about war and human destruction), he was, indeed, a trained theologian who engaged cultural and social pluralism on many levels.

King's religious pluralism was neither accidental nor auxiliary to his overall civil-rights activities. He put critical responsiveness into praxis. He imagined an ideal world with religious unity for all humanity--but not at the expense of personal identity. King was as an African American post-Christian freedom fighter who struggled for universal freedom. His grammar of intra- and interreligious thought ushers in a new liberal era that speaks to both worldwide evil and worldwide love. One cannot have one without the other--that is, a discourse on universal oppression is impossible without having conversations about forgiveness.

King unmistakably communicated a message beyond a sectarian hope: Loyalties need to be consistently ecumenical. Simply put, more individuals fit theological and pluralistic classifications than originally had been assumed, due to the sometimes narrow ways in which scholarly terminology is constructed.

Roy Whitaker (Religious Humanist) has been an assistant professor of religion since 2014 at San Diego (CA) State University, where he has lectured since 2005. He has also lectured in religion, philosophy, and/or humanities at Cuyamaca Community College (2006-09), the University of San Diego (2007), the University of Redlands (2005), and Riverside Community College (2003-05)--all in California; and for the University of Phoenix (AZ) (2003-05). He was a teaching fellow at Harvard University in humanities in 2001 and studied at the University of Tubingen in 2000-01. He holds a B.A. from San Diego State University; an M.Div. from Princeton (NJ) Theological Seminary; an M.Th. from Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA; and a Ph.D. in philosophy and religion (2014) from Claremont (CA) Graduate School. He has four entries in the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Zondervan, 2011) and an article in Mormon Studies Review (2015), with others in process. He has presented some thirty papers at the American Academy of Religion, both nationally and in the Western Region and at other professional conferences over the last decade. He has been an officer of the Western Region AAR since 2010. His professional and community lectures and media involvement often touch on hip-hop, African-American interfaith concerns, and social-justice issues.

(1) "Diana Eck--Globalization and Religious Pluralism," n.d., video clip recorded at the University of Edinburgh, April, 2009; available at

(2) See Arvind Sharma, A Primal Perspective on the Philosophy of Religion (Dordrecht: Springer, 2006); Jeremy H. Smith, "Primal Religious Experience as Philosophical Evidence: A Response to Arvind Sharma's A Primal Perspective on the Philosophy of Religion," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79 (December, 2011): 827-841; Cornel West, "The Historicist Turn in Philosophy of Religion," in Cornel West, ed., The Cornel West Reader (New York: Basic Civitas Books), pp. 360-371; and Volker Kiister, "Toward an Intercultural Theology: Paradigm Shifts in Missiology, Ecumenics, and Comparative Religion," in Viggo Mortensen, ed., Theology and the Religions: A Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), p. 173.

(3) Jarich Oosten, "Cultural Anthropological Approaches," in Frank Whaling, ed., Theory and Method in Religious Studies: Contemporary Approaches to the Study of Religion, Religion and Reason 27/28 (Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 199s), p. 352.

(4) See Risto Saarinen, "After Rescher: Pluralism as Preferentialism," in Mortensen, Theology and the Religions, pp. 409 and 413; Mark Silk, "Defining Religious Pluralism in America: A Regional Analysis," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 612 (July, 2007): 64-81; and Lene Kuhle, "Religious Pluralism in Multireligiosity," in Mortensen, Theology and the Religions, p. 425.

(5) See S. Mark Heim, Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995).

(6) William E. Connolly, Pluralism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), pp. 6, 30, 38-49, 61-63, and 147.

(7) James H. Cone, Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998 (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1999), p. 53.

(8) See Paul R. Garber, "King Was a Black Theologian," in David J. Garrow, ed., Martin Luther King, Jr.: Civil Rights Leader, Theologian, Orator, vol. 2 (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, 1989), p. 411; L. Harold DeWolf, "Martin Luther King, Jr., as Theologian," in Garrow, Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. 1, p. 258; and James H. Cone, "The Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr.," in Garrow, Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. 1, p. 229. E.g., "Teachers of theology do themselves, their students, and their discipline a great disservice," Cone wrote, "when they ignore the outstanding contribution that King has made to American theology... For if one wishes to know what it means to be a theologian, there is no better example than... King" (Cone, "The Theology," p. 229).

(9) See Gordon Kaufman, Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968).

(10) See Martin Luther King, Jr., "The Current Crisis in Race Relations," in James Melvin Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), p. 88.

(11) See Martin Luther King, Jr., "How to Use the Bible in Modern Theological Construction" (1949), in Clayborne Carson et al., eds., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. 1: Called to Serve, January 1919-June 1951 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 251-256; and idem, "Light on the Old Testament from the Ancient Near East" (1949), in Carson, Called to Serve, pp. 162-180.

(12) See Martin Luther King, Jr., "The Humanity and Divinity of Jesus," in Carson, Called to Serve, pp. 257-262; and idem, "What Experiences of Christians Living in the Early Christian Century Led to the Christian Doctrines of the Divine Sonship of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and the Bodily Resurrection?" in Carson, Called to Serve, pp. 225-230.

(13) For example, Sandy D. Martin published one of the first articles on King's thinking on religious pluralism and interfaith issues back in 1991-92, and a number of King scholars have treated the subject over the last five years. In his book, The Voice of Conscience: The Church in the Mind of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), Lewis V. Baldwin devoted much of chap. 5 to the topic, "In Search of a Positive Pluralism: The Church, Other World Religions, and Interreligious Dialogue." Baldwin also dealt with King's encounter with other faith traditions in his edited volume, "In a Single Garment of Destiny": A Global Vision of Justice--Martin Luther King, Jr., The King Legacy Series (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2012), in which Part VI (pp. 189-209) is devoted to King's writings under the heading, "Toward a Positive Pluralism: Interfaith Dialogue and Global Community," prefaced by an introduction. There is also a wonderful chapter by John Thatamanil, "The Hospitality of Receiving: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Interreligious Learning," in Lewis V. Baldwin and Paul R. Dekar, eds., "In an Inescapable Network of Mutuality": Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Globalization of an Ethical Ideal (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books [Wipf &

(14) Winston Persaud, "The Theological Horizon of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Struggle for Civil Rights," Martin Luther King, Jr., Convocation Lecture at Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, IA, February 14, 2001.

(15) James H. Cone, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991).

(16) Marc Schneier, Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Jewish Community (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2009 [1st ed., 1999]).

(17) Michael J. Nojeim, Gandhi and King: The Power of Nonviolent Resistance (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004).

(18) See Thatamanil, "The Hospitality of Receiving"; and Baldwin, Voice of Conscience, pp. 201-216.

(19) See S. Mark Heim, Is Christ the Only Way? Christian Faith in a Pluralistic World (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1985); or idem, Salvations.

(20) Martin Luther King, Jr., "A Time to Break Silence," in Washington, A Testament of Hope, p. 242.

(21) Martin Luther King, Jr., "The Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity" (1949-50), in Carson, Called to Serve, pp. 294-312; available at https://kinginstitute.stan

(22) Martin Luther King, Jr., "Playboy Interview: Martin Luther King, Jr. (1965)," in Washington, A Testament of Hope, p. 373.

(23) Cf. Mary Frances Berry, "Vindicating Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Road to a ColorBlind Society," The Journal of Negro History 81 (Winter-Autumn, 1996): 137-144.

(24) See Mary R. Sawyer, "Black Ecumenical Movements: Proponents of Social Change," Review of Religious Research 30 (December, 1988): 151-161; and David L. Edwards, "Signs of Radicalism in the Ecumenical Movement," in Harold E. Fey, ed., The Ecumenical Advance: A History of the Ecumenical Movement, vol. 2:1948-1968 (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1968), p. 402.

(25) James M. Washington, "Editor's Introduction," in Washington, A Testament of Hope, p. xix.

(26) King, "A Time to Break Silence," p. 242.

(27) Peter Paris, The Spirituality of African Peoples: The Search for a Common Moral Discourse (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994), p. 133.

(28) King, "A Time to Break Silence," p. 242.

(29) Chap. 6 of Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? in Washington, A Testament of Hope, pp. 617-633.

(30) Martin Luther King, Jr., "My Trip to the Land of Gandhi" (1959), in Washington, A Testament of Hope, p. 25.

(31) King, Where Do We Go from Here, p. 617.

(32) King, "A Time to Break Silence," p. 242.

(33) Hans Jochen Margull, "The Ecumenical Movement in the Churches and at the Parish Level," in Fey, History of the Ecumenical Movement, 1948-1968, p. 3 66.

(34) See John Kirk, Martin Luther King, Jr.: Profiles in Power (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 136; and David L. Lewis, "Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Promise of Nonviolent Populism," in John Hope Franklin and August Meier, eds., Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1982), pp. 277-303.

(35) King, "My Trip to the Land of Gandhi," p. 27.

(36) Barbara Christian, "The Race for Theory," Feminist Studies 14 (Spring, 1988): 67-79.

(37) King, "My Trip to the Land of Gandhi," p. 28; emphases added.

(38) See Martin Luther King, Jr., "Speech to the Synagogue Council of America," December s, 1965, available at; Canon John Nurser, "The 'Ecumenical Movement' Churches, 'Global Order," and Human Rights: 1938-1948," Human Rights Quarterly 25 (November, 2003): 841-881; and William M. King, "The Reemerging Revolutionary Consciousness of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1965-1968," The Journal of Negro History 71 (Winter-Autumn, 1986): 1-22.

(39) See Margull, "The Ecumenical Movement in the Churches," p. 366.

(40) King, "My Trip to the Land of Gandhi," p. 24.

(41) See Berry, "Vindicating Martin Luther King, Jr."; and Gary Dorrien, Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Social Gospel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).

(42) Martin Luther King, Jr., "Telegram to Cesar Chavez," September 19,1966, emphasis added; available at sentry/telegram_to_cesar_chavez/.

(43) Connolly, Pluralism, pp. 126-127.

(44) In his own Christian faith community, the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. supported many of King's initiatives, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Poor People's Campaign, the National Conference on Religion and Race, and criticism of the Vietnam War.

(45) King delivered similar African American-Hindu messages on February 26, 1965, at Temple Israel and on July 4, 1965, at Ebenezer Baptist Church (see following note).

(46) Martin Luther King, Jr., "The American Dream," available at https://kinginstitute -baptist-church.

(47) Lewis R. Gordon, Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought (New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 137-138.

(48) Martin Luther King, Jr., "The Negro Is Part of That Huge Community Who Seek New Freedom in Every Area of Life" (1959), in Carson, Threshold of a New Decade, pp. 116-120; available at -part-huge-community-who-seek-new-freedom-every-area-life.

(49) Gordon, Existentia Africana, p. 128.

(50) Martin Luther King, Jr., "Advice for Living," Ebony column, September, 1958.

(51) Cf. King, "Playboy Interview," p. 363.

(52) King, "Advice for Living," September, 1958.

(53) See King, "Time to Break Silence," p. 242; Lewis V. Baldwin, "To Witness in Dixie: King, the New South, and Southern Civil Religion," in Lewis V. Baldwin et al., eds., The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Boundaries of Law, Politics, and Religion (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), p. 47; Lewis V. Baldwin, To Make the Wounded Whole: The Cultural Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 255; Walter E. Fluker, They Looked for A City: A Comparative Analysis of the Ideal of Community in Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989); and Russell Moldovan, Martin Luther King, Jr.: An Oral History of His Religious Witness and His Life (Lanham, MD: International Scholars Publications, *999), P-121. Indeed, King's idea of and language about God figure into his thinking and claims around issues of religious pluralism. E.g., see the interfaith prayer King recited in 1959, which appears in Lewis V. Baldwin, ed., "Thou, Dear God": Prayers that Open Hearts and Spirits--The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2012); his reading of the interfaith lesson in the parable of the Good Samaritan in his sermon "Who Is My Neighbor?" which is included in his Strength to Love (New York: Harper and Row, 1963); and his interpretation of what he termed "the Master's way in the words of the fourth gospel: 'I have other sheep that are not of this fold' " (King's letter to Dr. Harold E. Fey, dated June 23, 1962, in Baldwin, "In a Single Garment of Destiny," p. 201).

(54) Martin Luther King, Jr., "Paul's Letter to American Christians, Sermons Delivered to the Commission on Ecumenical Missions and Relations, United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.," June 3, 1958, in Clayborne Carson et al., eds., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. 6: Advocate of the Social Gospel, September 1948-March 1963 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2007), p. 342, n. 17.

(55) Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), p. 13.

(56) John A. Kirk, Martin Luther King, Jr.: Profiles in Power (Harlow, U.K.: Pearson, 2004), p-17.

(57) William R. Burrows, "Commensurability and Ambiguity: Liberation as an Interreligiously Usable Concept," in Dan Cohn-Sherbok, ed., World Religions and Human Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), pp. 136 and 139.

(58) Martin Luther King, Jr., "The Chief Characteristics and Doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism" (1950), in Carson, Called to Serve, p. 320; available at https://kinginstitute -buddhism. '

(59) Cf. Caleb Oladipo, "Confession, Tradition, and Perspectives: Response and Reflection of Afro-Americans to the Age of Religious Pluralism," in Viggo Mortensen, ed., Theology and the Religions: A Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), pp. 76-77 and 83-84.

(60) King, "The Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity," p. 311.

(61) See Saarinen, "After Rescher," pp. 409 and 413; Silk, "Defining Religious Pluralism in America"; Bill Bolin, "Coming to Terms: Pluralism," The English Journal 85 (March, 1996): 101-102; and Kuhle, "Religious Pluralism in Multireligiosity," p. 425.

(62) See David Ray Griffin, Deep Religious Pluralism (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005).

(63) Martin Luther King, Jr., "The American Dream" (1961), in Washington, A Testament of Hope, p. 208.

(64) King, Where Do We Go from Here, p. 618.

(65) See Warren E. Steinkraus, "The Dangerous Ideas of Martin Luther King," in Garrow, Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. 3, p. 928.

(66) King, "Advice for Living," Ebony column, June, 1958.

(67) Ibid.

(68) See Connolly, Pluralism, pp. 41 and 67.

(69) See Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom, in Washington, A Testament of Hope, p. 438.

(70) Ibid.

(71) See James H. Smylie, "On Jesus, Pharaohs, and the Chosen People: Martin Luther King as Biblical Interpreter and Humanist," in Garrow, Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. 3, p. 851.

(72) King, "Paul's Letter to American Christians," p. 342.

(73) See Sandy D. Martin, "King and Interfaith Dialogue," Journal of Religious Thought 48 (Winter-Spring, 1991-92): 34; and Andreea Deciu Ritivoi, Paul Ricoeur: Tradition and Innovation in Rhetorical Theory (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006), p. 15.

(74) Abraham Heschel, "Conversation with Martin Luther King," in Washington, A Testament of Hope, p. 658.

(75) See John Cobb, Jr., "Some Whiteheadian Assumptions about Religion and Pluralism," in Griffin, Deep Religious Pluralism, pp. 260-261.

(76) King, "I Have a Dream" (1963), in Washington, A Testament of Hope, p. 217.

(77) See Washington, "Editor's Introduction," p. xix.

(78) See Robert Wuthnow, America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 93.

(79) See Keith D. Miller, "Martin Luther King, Jr., Borrows a Revolution: Argument, Audience, and Implications of a Secondhand Universe," in Garrow, Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. 3, pp. 643-660; and Martin Luther King, Jr., "Atheism," available at http://www

(80) See King, "How to Use the Bible"; and idem, "Light on the Old Testament."

(81) See King, "The Humanity and Divinity of Jesus"; and idem, "What Experiences of Christians?"

(82) See King, "How to Use the Bible"; and idem, "Light on the Old Testament."

(83) King, "Paul's Letter to American Christians," p. 342.

(84) King, "Playboy Interview," pp. 364-365.
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Date:Jun 22, 2016
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