Fire in my bones: the prophetic preaching of Martin Luther King Jr.
In this article, I intend to demonstrate that the preaching of Dr. King reflected the same general concerns as did the preaching of the classical Hebrew prophets of the eighth century B.C. and Jesus. To achieve this purpose, I have selected for analysis portions of two published sermons and portions of three of his unpublished sermons which are representative of his preaching style. The published sermons are found in Dr. King's book The Strength to Love, which was first published in 1963. The three unpublished sermons were preached in the latter half of 1966 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, where he served as associate pastor with his father. I chose these unpublished sermons for three reasons: first, his sermons are consistently preserved in this period; second, because they deal with one central motif, the parables of Jesus, they allow the reader to get a feel for a certain aspect of Dr. King's thought; third, because they were preached in the latter period of his life, they represent his mature thought. Through the medium of the distinctive African-American preaching style, he communicated effectively a warm evangelical and culturally relevant message, which addressed both personal and social concerns.
One of the marks of the preaching of the classical prophets of Israel and Jesus was the ability to communicate in an effective manner with people. These prophets were masters of picturesque speech and even dramatically acted their messages on occasion. African-American preaching in America also has shared historically this ability in communication. Henry H. Mitchell has pointed out that black preachers have enjoyed success for two basic reasons: first, they have been able dramatically to present the gospel in the language and culture of the people; and second, they have related the gospel in such a way that it speaks to contemporary problems and needs. Put simply, the black hermeneutic puts the gospel on a tell-it-like-it-is, nitty-gritty basis. (1)
The sermons of Dr. King are replete with down-to-earth language that deals with the everyday life of African-Americans. Unlike many white preachers who shared with him similar educational achievements, he seldom allowed his preaching material to soar beyond the intellectual reach of his congregation. (2) Even profound concepts were communicated in such a way that the unlettered could comprehend his meaning.
In a sermon entitled "Who Are We?" he presented a variety of philosophical interpretations of humanity in a simple and clear fashion. For a definition of what a materialist believes, he said a materialist feels that "man is nothing but an animal." A humanist affirms that "man is the highest form of being .. [sic] which has evolved in the natural universe." A realist is one who says "man is neither all bad or good." (3)
In this Same sermon, after identifying the realist position as the Christian view concerning humanity, he demonstrated his ability to clarify complex issues. He contrasted the realism of Christian doctrine with the dichotomy of ancient Greek philosophy without bogging down his listeners in metaphysical jargon. He utilizes the dialectic method to retain the best of both views, without losing his listeners by trying to get them to understand the subtleties of his methodology. He simply states:
If we're going to be sound in our doctrine of who we are, we've got to be concerned about man's physical and his material well being. It may be true that man cannot live by bread alone, but the mere fact that Jesus added the alone, means that man cannot live without bread. Religion must be concerned about, [sic] the conditions that people face as they live everyday life. (4)
Another mark of the classical prophets of Israel and Jesus was their concern for both the personal and the social aspects of religion. They recognized that a proclamation of either dimension without the other was less than the genuine word from God. Preaching that deals with only the personal dimension of religion tends towards a narrow view of piety with its "holier-than-thou" attitude. However, preaching that deals only with the social dimension of religion tends toward a superficial analysis of the situation of humans, ignoring the existential estrangement of individuals from God.
At its best, black preaching in the United States has also embodied concern for both the personal and the social dimensions of religion. While it is true that some black preachers have been and continue to be bound to an otherworldly understanding of religion, while others have become completely absorbed in liberation theology, many have combined the two dimensions in a healthy tension. On the one hand, nurtured in the revivalistic tradition of the Baptists and Methodists, most African-Americans are unwilling to forsake their roots in "born again" religion. On the other hand, oppressed for centuries by the Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition, they are unwilling to remain content with the evils of existing social structures. (5)
King's sermons demonstrate that he maintained the tension between the and the social dimensions of religion. (6) In most of his sermons, he moved from the personal dimension to the social dimension. First, he introduced a point. Then, he sought to give relevance to the point by giving concrete examples of how it applied at a personal level. After thoroughly examining the personal implications, he turned to the social ones. In using this method of moving from the personal to the social, he managed to address an extraordinary number of issues without losing the central focus of the sermon.
Examples of King's method of dealing with both the personal and social dimensions are seen clearly in his sermons on the parables of Jesus. In these sermons, he usually began by relating the parable to the congregation. Then, in the best tradition of the African-American storyteller, he engaged the congregation in the scene of the action by playing all the roles in the story. (7) Once the congregation was involved in the story, he began to make applications with relevance for the congregation.
In his sermon on "The Good Samaritan," after he involved the congregation through the telling of the story, he said, "I want you to see three philosophies in this story.... And this morning I want you to search your soul as we deal with these philosophies .. [sic] in this parable .. [sic] and see which one you follow." (8) After giving this introduction, he dealt with each of the three philosophies, commenting on both the personal and social implications of each. An examination of the first major point of this sermon demonstrates his method.
First, he stated his point: "Now, the first philosophy is the philosophy of the robber. And that philosophy says, `What is yours is mine. And if you don't give it to me, I'll take it from you.'" Having stated his point, he moved to the obvious personal application in his first subpoint. "Some men live by this tragic philosophy. We read about it in the newspapers everyday." He expanded on this by talking about robbers, thieves, shoplifters, etc. In his second subpoint, he remained in the personal realm, but he made a smooth transition to focus on his congregation. "Now, before you think you are off the hook because I doubt seriously if any of you sitting under the sound of my voice here would steal anything in the sense [sic]. But I don't want you to get off that easily. Robbery takes many forms. It is possible through maliciousness, to rob a person of their good name." He expanded on this point by talking about the evil gossip that takes place in the barbershop, in the beauty shop, around the card table, and over the telephone. In his third subpoint, he moved from the personal dimension to the social. "Society robs in strange and tragic ways. Races trample over other races with the iron feet of oppression. Some of the most glaring expressions of robbery [sic]." From this he launched into an extended discussion of slavery, slums, unemployment, housing, stability of the Negro family, and education. (9) The other two major points of this sermon and their subpoints follow a similar progression. In his conclusion to the sermon, he brought the personal and social dimensions together with a powerful challenge reminiscent of the prophets of Israel:
One day the question will come. It'll come in your life. `What have you been doing, how have you been living?'... I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to live my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity. I choose to live for and with those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I'm going. If it means suffering a little bit, I'm going that way. If it means sacrificing, I'm going that way .. [sic] because I heard a voice saying, `Do something for others.' If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, if I can show somebody he is traveling wrong, then my living shall not be in vain. And then if we, as a collective whole will follow this, none of our living will be in vain, for we begin in our little way to build God's kingdom right here. (10)
Like the classical prophets and Jesus, King was as, concerned with orthopraxy as he was with orthodoxy. His sermon on "The Pharisee and the Publican" emphasizes the ultimate importance of the ethical dimension of religion. As in his other sermons on the parables of Jesus, he moves from the personal to the social dimension.
Again, an examination of his first major point in this sermon demonstrates his method. In telling the story of the pharisee and the publican he said, "The first thing I want you to see is this, Jesus condemned the pharisee because the pharisee confused ceremonial piety with genuine religious living." He goes on to clarify this by stating, "Jesus was saying in substance that however important it is to carry on the ritual and the ceremonial aspects of religion that genuine religion is always followed up by the living of a meaningful life." Having stated his point, he deals with the personal dimension in his first subpoint:
In each of us there are two basic faculties, the ethical and the aesthetic, our sense of duty and our sense of beauty. And Christ appeals to both of them. The danger is that we will allow the aesthetic, the ritual, the liturgy, and all that goes along with that to take precedence over the ethical. By the millions, people all over the world worship Christ emotionally but not morally. (11)
The transition to his second subpoint, dealing with the social dimension, is so smooth that one senses the essential unity of the two dimensions of the message:
Do you know that if you go to South Africa today you will find the churches full? You will find in South Africa today fourteen million black men and women, boys and girls segregated on two percent of their own land.... Stay around there long enough and you will discover that the whole segregated system of South Africa came into being with the sanction of the protestant church. Daniel Malone, one of the great leaders that brought apartheid into being, was a Dutch Reformed Protestant preacher. He worshiped Christ emotionally, but not morally. Go to your lynching mobs. So often Negroes in Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia and other places have been taken to that tree that bears strange fruit. And do you know that the folk lynching them are often big deacons in the Baptist churches and stewards in the Methodist churches feeling that by killing and murdering and lynching another human being they are doing the will of almighty God? The most vicious oppressors of the Negro today are probably in church. Ross Barnette teaches Sunday school in a Methodist church in Mississippi. Mr. Wallace of Alabama taught Sunday school for years. (12)
In a sermon entitled "Shattered Dreams" which is found in Strength to Love, a published collection of Dr. King's sermons, he dealt with the theme of disappointment. A portion of Romans 15:24 was his biblical text: "Whensoever I take my journey into Spain, I will come to you." The introduction of the sermon began with the stark observation that few humans live to see their fondest hopes fulfilled. A question is posed: "Is there any one of us who has not faced the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?" (13)
After asking this question, Dr. King proceeded to exegete the biblical text, explaining that the apostle Paul's dream to preach the gospel in Spain never came to pass. Rome was supposed to be a resting point on the journey to Spain, not Paul's final destination. However, Paul's journey to Rome was one of imprisonment that thwarted his dream of proclaiming the message of Christ in Spain. He ended the exegetical section by asserting that Paul's life was, in some sense, a tragic story of a shattered dream. In a masterful usage of biblical metaphors to relate the relevance of Paul's situation to contemporary life, he draws his audience into the text:
Life mirrors many similar experiences. Who has not set out toward some distant Spain, some momentous goal, or some glorious realization, only to learn at last that he must settle for much less? We never walk as free men through the streets of our Rome; instead, circumstances decree that we live within little confining cells. Written across our lives is a fatal flaw and within history runs an irrational and unpredictable vein. Like Abraham, we too sojourn in the land of promise, but so often we do not become `heirs with him in the same promise.' Always our reach exceeds our grasp. (14)
Displaying the same sense of realism in social reform that the classical prophets of Israel possessed, Dr. King pointed to great leaders of the twentieth century who failed to see their greatest hopes realized. He discussed Mahatma Gandi's profound disappointment that religious wars shattered the unity of the Indian people and led to the formation of a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan. He referred to Woodrow Wilson's deep sadness that the League of Nations failed to become a reality in his lifetime. With a keen sense of his own African-American heritage, he told of slaves who longed for freedom but died before emancipation.
After exploring a variety of human responses to disappointment including bitterness, introversion, and fatalism, Dr. King, in his second major point, explored a biblical solution to deferred hopes. The answer to disappointment, he suggested, lies in accepting the circumstances that life dictates without losing hope for a better day. He explicitly expressed his opinion that this is not simply yielding to fatalism; rather, it is dealing with the grief of disappointment in a realistic manner. He quoted the prophet Jeremiah: "This is grief, and I must bear it." The answer lay in facing our disillusionment.
You must honestly confront your shattered dream. To follow the escapist method of attempting to put the disappointment out of your mind will lead to a psychologically injurious repression. Place your failure at the forefront of your mind and stare daringly at it. Ask yourself, `How may I transform this liability into an asset? How may I, confined to some narrow Roman cell and unable to reach life's Spain, transmute this dungeon of shame into a haven of redemptive suffering?' Almost anything that happens to us may be woven into the purposes of God. It may lengthen our cords of sympathy. It may break our self-centered pride. The cross, which was willed by wicked men, was woven by God into the tapestry of world redemption. (15)
Dr. King gave several examples of individuals who rose above the circumstances of life to make a mark on the world--Charles Darwin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Helen Keller, and George Frederick Handel. He argued for the power of transformation in an individual's life through attitude. Such individual strength of character has the power to transform society through solidarity. By linking hearts and hands African-Americans can use their collective grief as a spiritual force.
We Negroes have long dreamed of freedom, but still we are confined in an oppressive prison of segregation and discrimination. Must we respond with bitterness and cynicism? Certainly not, for this will destroy and poison our personalities. Must we, by concluding that segregation is within the will of God, resign ourselves to oppression? Of course not, for this blasphemously attributes to God that which is of the devil. To co-operate passively with an unjust system makes the oppressed as evil as the oppressor. Our most fruitful course is to stand firm with courageous determination, move forward nonviolently amid obstacles and setbacks, accept disappointments, and cling to hope. Our determined refusal not to be stopped will eventually open the door to fulfillment. While still in the prison of segregation, we must ask, `How may we turn this liability into an asset?' By recognizing the necessity of suffering for a righteous cause, we may possibly receive our humanity's full stature. To guard ourselves from bitterness, we need the vision to see in this generation's ordeals the opportunity to transfigure both ourselves and American society. Our present suffering and our nonviolent struggle to be free may well offer to Western civilization the kind of spiritual dynamic so desperately needed for survival. (16)
In his third major point, Dr. King borrowed a concept from Paul Tillich's The Courage to Be. (17) He says that there are times in life when a person has to press on against adversities even when such striving seems futile. At such times the divine image within is revealed by the "courage to be." He relates a personal experience to illustrate the power of the divine image working within a human. He tells of flying from New York to London and back before jets became common in the airline business. Flying as a passenger on a propeller-type airplane, the voyage from New York to London took nine and a half hours. He was surprised to learn shortly before flying back that the return journey would take twelve and a half hours. He asked the pilot to explain the additional three hours, since the mileage would be the same. The pilot explained that in flying from New York to London there were strong tail winds that favored the direction the plane was headed. However, on the return voyage the same winds became an obstacle to the plane's progress. They became head winds that slowed the flight to New York. But the pilot assured him that the four engines gave the airplane the needed power to overcome the head winds. He applies the illustration to life:
At times in our lives the tail winds of joy, triumph, and fulfillment favour us, and at times the head winds of disappointment, sorrow, and tragedy beat unrelentingly against us. Shall we permit adverse winds to overwhelm us as we journey across life's mighty Atlantic, or will our inner spiritual engines sustain us in spite of the winds? Our refusal to be stopped, our `courage to be,' our determination to go on `in spite of,' reveal the divine image Within us. The man who has made this discovery knows that no burden can overwhelm him and no wind of adversity can blow his hope away. He can stand anything that can happen to him. (18)
The integration of neo-orthodoxy with evangelical, African-American Christianity is clearly reflected in Dr. King's sermon entitled "The Answer to a Perplexing Question," which is also found in The Strength to Love. The central theme of the message is the problem of evil. How do humans rid themselves of evil at a personal and social level? The biblical text is a story from the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew that relates a failed exorcism by the apostles. When Jesus was told of his apostles' failure, He proceeded to exorcise a demon from a boy and restore the boy's health. The apostles, who were perplexed by their inability to do what Jesus had just done, asked, "Why could we not cast him out?" Jesus responded, "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you" (Matt. 17:20). (19)
In the first major point of the sermon, Dr. King asked the question: how can evil be cast out? He asserted that humans have typically followed one of two paths in trying to eliminate evil and save the world. He proceeded to examine the first path, which is that of classical nineteenth-century liberalism. With its roots in the Renaissance, liberalism or humanism carried the day in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, education, legislation, and enlightened modern policies had failed to eliminate selfishness and hatred. The age of reason had proved to be an age of terror. The optimism of the recent past had given way to pessimism. Why had humans through reason failed to overcome evil? "The answer is rather simple: Man by his own power can never cast evil from the world. The humanist's hope is an illusion, based on too great an optimism concerning the inherent goodness of human nature." (20) Imbibing deeply from the wells of neo-orthodoxy, he rejected the theological naivete of liberalism. However, he did not discount the good that had been accomplished by humanitarian movements inspired by the tenants of liberalism and the advances in human knowledge that came as a result of the Renaissance. King stated that he would rather a person be a committed humanist than an uncommitted Christian. Nevertheless, in the end liberalism failed to account for the seriousness of sin in human existence. (21)
In the second major point, Dr. King explored the other common response to evil, which is a passive acceptance of the status quo. Based on an understanding that humans are capable of no good, this view presumes that humans must wait submissively for God's redemption. The Calvinistic concept of the total depravity of humans that grew out of the Protestant Reformation gives the primary theological rationale for such a passive approach to confronting evil. If liberalism was wrong in its appraisal of human nature, Calvinistic fundamentalism was wrong as well:
The doctrines of justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers are towering principles which we as Protestants must forever affirm, but the Reformation doctrine of human nature overstressed the corruption of man. The Renaissance was too optimistic, and the Reformation too pessimistic. The former so concentrated on the goodness of man that it overlooked his capacity for evil; the latter so concentrated on the wickedness of man that it overlooked his capacity for goodness. While rightly affirming the sinfulness of human nature and man's incapacity to save himself, the Reformation wrongly affirmed that the image of God had been completely erased from man. (22)
For Dr. King the tone of hopelessness in a caricatured emphasis on Reformation theology concerning the human condition separates religion from the mainstream of life. Such a notion creates a false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular in the affairs of life. Ministers are limited in their preaching to eternal matters of the afterlife and fail to address the relevance of the gospel to the pressing moral issues of society. Justice is deferred to the great beyond where we will all understand the trials of this life in our heavenly abode. Prayer is relegated to a plea for contentment in the midst of the evils of society. (23)
This concept of Prayer, according to Dr. King, spiritually abuses people and seeks to substitute pious platitudes for human effort in the cause of God. Mind and body, as gifts from God, are to be utilized to their fullest extent to promote a righteous society. Prayer is important; however, it is not a substitute for action. Addressing the issue of integration he says:
I am certain we need to pray for God's help and guidance in this integration struggle, but we are gravely misled if we think the struggle will be won only by prayer. God, who gave us minds for thinking and bodies for working, would defeat his own purposes if he permitted us to obtain through prayer what may come through work and intelligence. Prayer is a marvelous and necessary supplement of our feeble efforts, but it is a dangerous substitute. 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. "And the Lord said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto me? Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward." (24)
Enlarging his focus, Dr. King decried the fallacy in thinking that humans must passively wait for God's intervention in world affairs. Humans become the very instruments of God to affect change for the betterment of humanity:
We must earnestly pray for peace, but we must also work vigorously for disarmament and the suspension of weapon testing. We must use our minds as rigorously to plan for peace as we have used them to plan for war. We must pray with unceasing passion for racial justice, but we must also use our minds to develop a programme, organize ourselves into mass nonviolent action, and employ every resource of our bodies and souls to bring into being those social changes that make for a better distribution of wealth within our nation and in the undeveloped countries of the world. (25)
In the final point of the sermon, Dr. King stated that the answer to the perplexing question of evil is found in faith. Faith is neither the unbridled optimism of liberalism nor the pessimism of fundamentalism. Rather, faith is the human cooperation with the gift of God in Jesus Christ. "Faith is the opening of all sides and at every level of one's life to the divine inflow." (26) Returning to the biblical text for the sermon, he asserted that what the disciples lacked when they failed to exorcise a demon from the boy was authentic faith. Jesus reminded them that they tried to do what could only be done when their lives were open receptacles for the outpouring of God's strength. In drawing the sermon to a close, his Baptist roots show in the warm invitation to respond in faith:
Herein we find the answer to a perplexing question. Evil can be cast out, not by man alone nor by a dictatorial God who invades our lives, but when we open the door and invite God through Christ to enter. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock: If any hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." God is too courteous to break open the door, but when we open it in faith believing, a divine and human confrontation will transform our sin-ruined lives into radiant personalities. (27)
The preaching of Martin Luther King Jr. reflects the same general concerns as did the preaching of the classical prophets of Israel and Jesus. Like them he was a master of the spoken word. His sermons grew out of the same tradition as theirs, emphasizing that God's claims on humanity have both personal and social dimensions.
Many aspects of Dr. King's life have contributed to his place in history. With the passage of time, however, his greatness increasingly will be seen primarily in terms of his prophetic vision. Like Jeremiah who talked about fire in his bones, Dr. King will be remembered as a great preacher of righteousness. Perhaps he said it best, "The word of God is upon me like fire shut up in my bones, and when God gets upon me I've got to say it, I got to tell it all over everywhere." (28)
(1.) Henry H. Mitchell, Black Preaching (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1970), 29-30.
(2.) Mitchell maintains that worship was similar for many whites and blacks in the early nineteenth century, but that theological education altered the white experience through the course of the century. Protestant seminaries, which white ministers increasingly attended, attempted to compete with the graduate divisions of liberal arts colleges, thus producing erudite scholars rather than outstanding preachers.
(3.) Martin Luther King Jr., "Who Are We?," sermon preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, 5 February, 1966.
(5.) Mitchell discusses the tension in black preaching in his chapter entitled "Toward a Theology of Black Preaching."
(6.) A good discussion of this aspect of King in connection with the overall structure of the African-American sermon is found in Hortense J. Spillers, "Martin Luther King and the Style of the Black Sermon," The Black Scholar 3 (September, 1971): 14-27.
(7.) Mitchell says that the success of preaching in the black church is related to the ability of the preacher as a storyteller. Good preaching in the black church tradition transcends the limitation of the present time. Through the power of vivid imagery, both the preacher and the congregation move freely into the future and the past.
(8.) Martin Luther King Jr., "The Good Samaritan," sermon preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, August 28, 1966.
(11.) Martin Luther King Jr., "The Pharisee and the Publican," sermon preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, 9 October, 1966.
(13.) Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), 86.
(14.) Ibid., 87.
(15.) Ibid., 91.
(16.) Ibid., 92.
(17.) As a student at Crozer Theological Seminary (B.D., 1951) and Boston University (Ph.D., 1955), King studied the neo-orthodox theologians when they were at the height of their popularity in American theological education. See Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1952).
(18.) Ibid., 93.
(19.) Ibid., 127-28.
(20.) Ibid., 129.
(21.) Ibid., 129-30.
(22.) Ibid., 130-31.
(24.) Ibid., 132.
(26.) Ibid., 135.
(27.) Ibid., 136-37.
(28.) Martin Luther King Jr., "Guidelines for a Constructive Church," sermon preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, June 5, 1966.
Marty Bell is associate professor of religion, Belmont University, Nashville, Tennessee.
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|Publication:||Baptist History and Heritage|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1999|
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