How Martin Luther King Jr. Changed Our World by Doing Theology

blog - mlk jr.You may have heard bells ringing near you today around 3:00pm. This was in celebration of the 50 year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C. (August 28, 1963 at 3:00pm).

Many allegations about MLK Jr. have come out since his passing. But regardless of your view of his personal life or his politics, what’s undeniable is that at the core of the changes that MLK Jr. helped launch was his theology.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated fifty years ago today that “all men are created equal.” It’s really a bit of strange claim when you think about it.  We don’t really all look equal. We don’t have the same cultural heritage. We don’t all talk the same. We don’t have the same IQ. We don’t all have the same interests. We don’t have the same moral performance records. In other words, by mere observation, you probably wouldn’t come to the conclusion that we all were “created equal.” So where on earth would anyone come up with that idea?

MLK Jr. got it from the Bible.

In his speech “The American Dream” (1964), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said,

“You see, the founding fathers were influenced by the Bible.  The concept of the imago dei (image of God) is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected.  And this gives everyone a uniqueness, a worth, a dignity, and we must never forget this as a nation.  There are no gradations in the image of God.  Every man from a treble white to a bass black are significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because everyone is made in the image of God.”

Now, admittedly, within Christian theology there have been many variations on the doctrine of the “image of God” (Gen. 1:26; Gen. 5:1-3; Gen. 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7).  As clearly and briefly as I can be, the three basic views on the “image of God” debate are sometimes summarized as the Substantive View (all humanity mirrors the essence of God in our ethics, free will, and rationale); the Relational View (only those with have a personal relationship with God possess an image of God); and the Functional View (all humanity relates to God simply in the way we rule over creation).

As a Lutheran pastor, I generally like to figure out what Martin Luther had to say about a topic? The best I could find was the following: speaking of pre-fallen Adam created in the image of God, Luther said, “In Adam there was an enlightened reason, a true knowledge of God, and a most sincere desire to love God and his neighbour, so that Adam embraced Eve and at once acknowledged her to be his own flesh.” (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 1, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, trans. George V. Schlink (Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia, 1958), p. 63.) That doesn’t give us a ton to go on. But I think it’s fairly safe to say, nonetheless, that most every Reformer, including Luther and Calvin, suggested that after the fall, Adam lost some aspect of the image of God and retained some aspect of it.

So regardless of which view of the “image of God” you hold or whichever theologian you think has the right take on it, EVERY widely respected Bible scholar will suggest that humans have always had inherent value precisely because God originally infused humanity with his image and likeness.

James 3:9-10 “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”

Back to MLK Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. did not say that people should believe that humans are all equal because we’re all equally refined and sophisticated.  He didn’t say we should value all human life because it comes naturally to us or because it’s common sense.   No. He did theology.  He borrowed his logic directly from James, the brother of Jesus (quoted above), who said that if we ALL were created in the image of God, and if Jesus Christ really is the glorious Lord and Savior of ALL MANKIND, then we can never, ever, ever look down on anyone, because we’re all sinners who are saved only by God’s grace. That’s the gospel. External, superficial judgment is not an option. We were created in the image of God and therefore, while we’re not God, we were designed to reflect God out into the world so that all may see the glory of God. Taking that thought a step further, if grace is the most important thing that God shows to this world, then logically, the most important contribution you and I can make to this world, is not to be beautiful, intelligent, successful, wealthy, etc.  The most important contribution we can make to this world, is to show it grace – undeserved love, kindness without qualification, truth without reservation.

Can you imagine what this world might look like if we all dealt with one another not on the basis of superficial judgment but, instead, on the basis of grace? What if we cherished other humans like they were gifts from God – created by God himself and with a part of him in there, not unlike an artist leaving a part of himself in his/her work?

Martin Luther King Jr., because of his theology, apparently could indeed imagine that. And his belief is why this world is a more livable place today.

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19 thoughts on “How Martin Luther King Jr. Changed Our World by Doing Theology

  1. Jacob W says:

    “As a Lutheran pastor, I generally like to figure out what Martin Luther had to say about a topic?”

    —The most interesting written work expressing his views on humane rights, to me is, “On the Jews and Their Lies.” The topic of slave labor is discussed in it, so it’s relevant to your blog.

  2. Jacob W says:

    What is your view on Christianity being the main justification for the African slave trade? Why did God let people incorrectly interpret His Word for so long?

    • I think misinterpretation of God’s Word has been an issue since Adam and Eve, not just during American slave trade. I know that God doesn’t “force” love or obedience or correct interpretation, so while I don’t know why he allows for it, I’m fairly convinced that he’d consider forcing correct interpretation as a violation of human freedom in some sense.

      I think humans were originally created in God’s image and therefore possess many of his same traits – creativity, intellect, ingenuity. And yet we lack God’s holiness. Consequently, when we come to Scripture, we don’t always see “holy” things as “holy,” but we come up with our own creative interpretations that our convenient for us.

      While some Christians at that time used the Bible as justification for slavery, they were wrong. 1) Slavery in the Bible is not the same as 19th century American slavery. A good percentage of the people in the Roman Empire were slaves. Most were treated fairly well and could potentially earn not only a decent wage, but their freedom. They had a lower “status” but they were not treated as animals. NOWHERE in the Bible is such mistreatment of humans advocated. In fact, Robert Alter, who is a prof at U Cal Berkley, and one of the leading Hebrew scholars on the planet, says in “The Art of Biblical Narrative” that if you’re reading the Bible and thinking that the writers (or God himself) is approving of polygamy or slavery, you’re reading it wrong.

      The human heart is inherently evil enough that it can pervert God’s Word for it’s own advantage. Satan himself sought to do this when tempting not only Adam and Eve, but Jesus himself, and he still uses this method to tempt humans today.

      • Jacob W says:

        “While some Christians at that time used the Bible as justification for slavery, they were wrong. 1) Slavery in the Bible is not the same as 19th century American slavery. A good percentage of the people in the Roman Empire were slaves. Most were treated fairly well and could potentially earn not only a decent wage, but their freedom. They had a lower “status” but they were not treated as animals. NOWHERE in the Bible is such mistreatment of humans advocated.”

        —No offense, but really? I could randomly throw a dart at the Old Testament and hit a verse where God is commanding His people to commit immoral actions.

        Soooo, by comparing the two types of slavery, are you implying that some forms of slavery are ok?

        Last, look up (Exodus 21:20-21 NIV), and tell me again, emphatically, that NOWHERE in the Bible is such mistreatment of humans advocated.

      • Jacob,
        This reply is actually to your comment below, but the thread wouldn’t let me comment on it.

        1) If you don’t believe in God, on what basis can you claim something to be “immoral”? Where can morals authoritatively come from outside of the concept of God?

        2) By comparing the two types of slavery, I’m suggesting merely suggesting that there are two concepts for the same word, and that when 21st century Americans read the word “slavery” in their Bibles, they have an entirely different image than what Greco-Roman slavery was. Historian Rodney Starks’ “The Rise of Christianity” is helpful for this. It’s sort of like using the word “work” – I could mean either a cushy 9-5 position at the office or I could be referring to backbreaking child labor. It depends on what you understand as “work” in your present culture. 21st century Americans are so conditioned to understand slavery a certain way that they misread the biblical text.

        3) Exodus 21 is part of a law code to help maintain peace and order within society. Today, we look at other parts of the world and see some laws as shockingly severe (cf. Michael Fay’s 1994 Singapore caning). If we can have that sort of disparity over our perception of laws in the world today, living at the exact same time, don’t you think it’s possible that we might not understand the basis for such laws in a society from 3000 years ago? Is Singapore wrong to have their law regarding caning for vandalism?

        I never claimed that the Bible didn’t advocate just punishment or harsh punishment for individuals. I said that it didn’t advocate treating humans as animals. And even then, what should or should not be fair treatment for humans or animals is obviously a bit subjective – for instance, from your previous posts, I gather that you and I don’t share the exact same views on how dogs might be disciplined. I could go on, but is it “inhuman” to lock a criminal in a cell or put handcuffs on them? Or, do we recognize that with violent types, sometimes harsher force might be necessary?

        Finally, the very verses that you’re pointing out are laws designed to PROTECT slaves from mistreatment – “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result” (Ex. 21:20). Maybe I’m missing something, but I feel like this verse is as much on my side of the argument as yours.

      • Jacob W says:

        You are human, so is it unreasonable to think Satan might have misled you into an incorrect interpretation of the verses you use to condemn homosexuality? What if the other Christian denominations/nondenominations are correct in their accepting homosexual/transgender individuals into their church and you are the ones displeasing God by your misinterpretation? Did you study other religions as thoroughly as your own? I’m just curious, I hope you aren’t offended by candid questions.

      • Jacob W says:

        “1) If you don’t believe in God, on what basis can you claim something to be “immoral”? Where can morals authoritatively come from outside of the concept of God?”

        I can claim something to be immoral on the basis of how it objectively effects the well being and autonomy of another sentient individual, and our shared environments. We don’t live in a vacuum. Our actions have consequences. That is why we should always be thoughtful in our actions.

        I have eyes, ears, and other sensory organs, which are connected to my brain that allow me to record and analyze my behavior and the behavior of others and our environment (effects, frequency, consistency, correlations). That allows me to make my own moral determination, which I contrast with other models, and I update mine if another model has objectively superior traits.

        Do you believe the only thing that determines an action as moral or immoral is what God commands? That isn’t objective morality, it’s moral relativism. You are using one subjective point of reference — God’s mind. And judging by the tens of thousands of Christian denominations/nondenominations, that is one fuzzy, unclear mind.

      • Jacob W says:

        “2) By comparing the two types of slavery, I’m suggesting merely suggesting that there are two concepts for the same word”

        It doesn’t matter which type of slavery you are trying to excuse, all slavery is wrong; it always has been. Owning another person is inhumane, opportunistic, exploitative, and most of all barbaric. My point is, God allowed this and even gave rules as to specify what level of barbarism you can get away with. You could beat your slave with a rod, half to death, as often as you saw fit. They are your property. That’s a very slippery slope. No death, no crime. Just a shattered human being, living a demeaning, miserable existence. Sad.

  3. Jacob W says:

    Martin Luther King Jr. is a civil rights hero because he possessed common empathy for his fellow human being and had the courage, determination, and charisma to motivate others to stand with him against social injustice. I’m curious, what was the position of the WELS Lutheran Synod during that era? Were they pro civil rights back then like they are towards gay Americans now a days?

    • I’d have to do some digging on both of those issues to say anything with confidence. I will say that the WELS is a church body filled with imperfect people, so I assume that some of its members, pastors, and leaders, at some point, have said some fairly inappropriate things. I can’t comment on “official stances or statements” of the social issues you’ve mentioned, because I just don’t know. Again, I’ll say that the reason I’m here though is the healthy biblical understanding that every last one of us is fallen far from what we were designed by God to be, but God didn’t give up on us, instead he loved us more – sending his Son to reclaim lost children and bring them home, all stemming from the love he has for us that we don’t deserve. That’s what I regularly hear in the WELS again and again. I’m less inclined to dogmatize every public stance on social issues. And I think the WELS would be too.

      • Jacob W says:

        Did you personally vote Yes or No on Prop 8, last election? Can an openly homosexual person become a member of the WELS, or gain employment within the organization?

  4. Jacob W says:

    “I’ll say that the reason I’m here though is the healthy biblical understanding that every last one of us is fallen far from what we were designed by God to be, but God didn’t give up on us, instkead he loved us more – sending his Son to reclaim lost children and bring them home, all stemming from the love he has for us that we don’t deserve.”

    —I mean no offense, but I find it so bizarre that you would use the word “healthy” to describe the view that humans are inherently worthless and deserve eternal torture by default? How is it healthy to assume the worst about people?

    • My view is NOT that humans are worthless. The exact opposite, in fact. I believe all humans have incredible inherent value. I do, however, believe humans are inherently helpless – to ultimately justify themselves before God.

      From this standpoint humans in relation to God are sort of like infants in relation to their parents. Infants are helpless, but their obviously not worthless. Their value is immense despite their inability to save themselves.

      • Hi James,

        I think comments by the Jacob Ws of the world regarding our “inherent worthlessness” merit a little more thought, although I perhaps I have less patience than you for responding at all when it seems clear they just want to argue. But I do wonder whether it is helpful to respond like you did – distinguishing between “worthless” and “helpless.”

        Romans 3:12, in the midst of Paul’s famous section on the total depravity of humanity, says that all “have together become worthless.” The Greek word appears to be an adjective turned into a verb, something like “they have been worthless-ized or useless-ized.” And really, no true Christian would argue with Jacob W that we say that humans “deserve eternal torture by default,” and isn’t that because by nature we are fit for nothing but the fire, i.e. worthless?

        I would appreciate your thoughts on this, but perhaps a better way to address Jacob W’s argument is threefold:

        1) We don’t say humans are “inherently” worthless, in that sense that worthlessness is a part of our essence, because the Bible doesn’t teach that. Even the verb in Romans 3:12 hints at that. Paul doesn’t say we ARE worthless, but that we have been worthless-ized, or have BECOME worthless. This is exactly what Article I of the Formula of Concord addressed. Our worthlessness is a trait deeply inhering in all people born in the natural way (two human parents), but it isn’t part of our essence, otherwise Jesus could not have become man without becoming a sinner and thus becoming worthless himself. And so it is proper to talk both about the default worth and worthlessness of humanity. They have worth, inasmuch as humans were created as the crown of God’s creation and the only creatures made in his image (by the way, if you’re looking for a great description of the imago Dei before and after the fall, Prof. Deutschlander’s commentary on Genesis 1-3 is solid gold) and inasmuch as each one is still “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14). They however have, at the same time, all become worthless because from the moment they are conceived they have entered an existence contrary to the worthy purpose for which God made them; they are hostile to him instead of glorifying him. Which leads to:

        2) We also talk about humanity’s worth “in Christ” and “without Christ.” Paul in Romans 1-3 is obviously talking about our existence as such, apart from any outside influence or activity. But as far as the outside influence or activity on God’s part goes, from eternity he chose to save us after the Fall. He imposed value on us by determining in himself (not because of anything he saw in us) that we were worth moving mountains so that we could live in harmony with him forever. Since Jesus shed his precious blood, worth more than all the world’s gold or silver, for ALL humanity, then IN CHRIST all humanity is worth more than all the world’s treasures.

        3) Finally, to Jacob W’s question, “How is it healthy to assume the worst about people?” The answer is, “It’s healthy because it’s the truth.” You’ll never live wisely and you’ll always find yourself getting confounded if you don’t assume the worst about people’s nature (talking without Christ here). For instance, if Jacob W found the proverbial, Socratic ring that allowed the wearer to make himself invisible, he would be a fool to use it himself to try and fix the world’s problems or to give it to anyone else to try and fix the world’s problems, because no matter whom he gave it to, that power would be abused. They might start out doing good, but it would only be a matter of time before immeasurably greater damage would be caused. That fact is owing to the worthlessness of humans. The best thing would be to bury it. Good things never happen when humans are placed in a position that only someone holy can hold (as you pointed out well in another recent post).

      • Jacob W says:

        “My view is NOT that humans are worthless. The exact opposite, in fact. I believe all humans have incredible inherent value. I do, however, believe humans are inherently helpless – to ultimately justify themselves before God. From this standpoint humans in relation to God are sort of like infants in relation to their parents. Infants are helpless, but their obviously not worthless. Their value is immense despite their inability to save themselves.”

        Your view is that humans have no worth in and of themselves, only the worth God has imbued them with. Do you believe that I’m going to hell for all eternity because if I’m separated from God, then I have no worth, even if I’ve been an objectively wonderful person my whole life and left many positive marks and minimal negative marks on others? Do you tell children that they are automatically guilty of sinning against God by default, because Adam and Eve made a mistake, and they are worthy of eternal hellfire unless they truly believe Jesus died to redeem them? If you impose that message on a developing mind, you can cripple their emotional development, by artificially limiting them to one of two choices: obey these dogmatic commands, or go to eternal hell. It’s not healthy in any meaningful sense of the word.

    • Jacob W says:

      “I think comments by the Jacob Ws of the world regarding our “inherent worthlessness” merit a little more thought, although I perhaps I have less patience than you for responding at all when it seems clear they just want to argue.”

      Nathan,
      The only purpose I have in commenting on this blog is to express my views, the same as you and Pastor Hein are doing. I’m sorry that hearing opposing arguments upsets you, but this is a public forum, for public discussion. I don’t mind having my perspectives challenged; my character improves when I’m reasonably convinced of a better perspective and I update myself accordingly.

      “And really, no true Christian would argue with Jacob W that we say that humans “deserve eternal torture by default,” and isn’t that because by nature we are fit for nothing but the fire, i.e. worthless?”

      It saddens me that you view yourself and your fellow human beings as pitiful, helpless, and deserving of eternal pain, based on an undemonstrated presupposition (infallibility of scripture). All three folds of your argument were built on a presupposed conclusion of the Bible being the literal word of God. It is a tautological argument.

      “Finally, to Jacob W’s question, “How is it healthy to assume the worst about people?” The answer is, “It’s healthy because it’s the truth.” You’ll never live wisely and you’ll always find yourself getting confounded if you don’t assume the worst about people’s nature (talking without Christ here).”

      Wow. I really hope you are not a public legislator. You would probably overcrowd our prisons even more with criminals that have been legislated into existence. What you define as truth, the dictionary would define as conjecture. So how do you get by, day to day, having to be around all these wild human animals that can only be constrained to moral behavior by believing that God makes the rules and He will either reward you or punish you eternally for your behavior? Can’t a person be a monster their whole life, and then somehow make a sincere acceptance of Jesus as their savior on their deathbed? What kind of justice is that? It’s injustice.

      • Techie says:

        “The only purpose I have in commenting on this blog is to express my views”

        Demonstrably false. The fact that he does it here instead of on his own site shows that there’s more to it than merely expressing views.

        “All three folds of your argument were built on a presupposed conclusion of the Bible being the literal word of God. It is a tautological argument.”

        Tautologies are, by definition, true. If the argument and its presuppositions are indeed true, then it is eternally healthy to have this view.

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