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.