The Preacher King
His power of Love
By E C Andercheck
Martin Luther King Jr. was a preacher, a preacher of the Gospel who kept Christian Love at the heart of his message thereby leading a movement with a power beyond that which a mere secular message could invoke. In his prologue to The Preacher King Richard Lischer introduces his undertaking, “ King’s self proclaimed mission “to redeem the soul of America” cannot be understood apart from his self-designated identity as a preacher of the gospel.”[i] Lischer goes on to eloquently bring us the story of how a preacher’s kid built a fully engaged theological approach to social justice never leaving behind those early “pk” formative preaching immersed experiences. He asserts, “It will be clear that King meant to make a Movement that was Christian, a distinctive purpose that continues to separate him from other prominent civil rights leaders.”[ii] In this critical study Lischer demonstrates how King evolved, sometimes borrowed, and delivered his religious performance as political leadership.
King didn’t write a systematic theology, he preached the story of a congregation of people who could become a Beloved Community. He drew upon his philosophical and theological education as he crafted a more refined “straight up” preaching delivery model, migrating away from the personality based power model of whooping and bench walking of his father and other early influences. His words and his message were a greater part of his preaching than the unbridled emotional storm of Daddy King and others. But King’s words were delivered with emotion and his lasting message resonated; spiritually, intellectually and harmonically. Lischer asserts that King had a methodical approach to his preaching, “He did not preach and speak the way he did because “that is the sort of person he was,” but because he had a mission no less calculated than Demosthenes’ appeal to Athens or Lincoln’s to America.”[iii]
King captivated people with his tonal qualities, his mastery of repetition into rhythm and his way of “hitting a lick” which would be remembered long after his closing words. He effectively brought his movements essence to a broad audience through his combination of grass roots and complex message elements, never leaving less educated followers behind because they hadn’t read Hegel or Niebuhr. Lischer elaborates primarily on King’s preaching techniques throughout his work, summarizing it as follows, “Amplification, intensification and sacred and heroic association are but a few ways in which King doctored his use of repetition.”[iv] King’s often return to Biblical references and the power of Agape Love frequently came to a crescendo with his voice amplifying the Lord’s name by rising into higher octaves and stirring his audiences into thunderous response.
Martin Luther King Jr. was more than a preacher, he was a Christian leader who built his own theology quite carefully and had deep personal concerns for justice. Lischer deals head on with King’s plagiarism and borrowing of sermon elements as unfortunate errors, but concludes that they did not evidence a lesser philosophical understanding or a lack of devotion in King to build a theology. His time at Boston University allowed King to deeply visit the philosophy of Personalism and evolve his own spiritually engaged path to religious leadership. Lischer asserts that, “King was chastened by his encounter with Niebuhr but he never converted. He criticized Niebuhr’s system for scoffing at the very thing he himself would die trying to accomplish, namely, the injection of Christian love into the social and political process.”[v]
Young Martin never experienced the “calling” in a singular dramatic moment but rather received his Father’s support as having been called through a deep but more gradual manner of the Lord’s influence. Lischer gives us a glimpse of the thoughtfully rebellious young King, who “…grew progressively annoyed with the “fundamentalist” bent of his Sunday School teachers until, at the age of thirteen, he shocked his class by “denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus.” From that age doubts came “unrelentingly”.”[vi] This specific position and his thoughtful theology were actively a part of young Martin’s life and the discussion of his candidacy to join the clergy.[vii] Young King was already a dreamer. These were the early days of a journey; a journey leading to the definition of a prophetic leader.
Lischer describes the history of Black Church leaders within the frame of Sustainers and Reformers, “King explicitly rejected otherworldly preaching but admired the Sustainer’s strategy of affirming the worth of the oppressed.”[viii] I believe King crafted an activist non-violent strategy of a hybrid nature, both sustaining and reforming, that was at the core of his success in the movement. Lischer concludes, “When he rose to preach, thousands of long-suffering Sustainers and fiery Reformers rose with him. As a sustainer he comforted his people with the gospel of their inestimable worth; as a Reformer he astonished them with the word of deliverance. His preaching was an electrifying moment, but only a moment, in which he merged his voice with the tradition’s continual cry.”[ix]
Lischer’s employment of the historical model for describing leadership within the categories of Sustainers and Reformers is helpful in framing the roles of the Black Church leaders in the tradition. However, in examining the Leadership of the Civil Rights movement I prefer the more complex model developed by Peter Paris in his work Black Religious Leaders Conflict in Unity. Paris categorized the movement leadership approaches as four, “The four ideal typifications of Black religious leaders are priestly, prophetic, political and nationalist.”[x] Paris defines these types thoroughly, but in short hand they are each exemplified by Joseph Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Malcolm X respectively.
It is my appraisal that Dr. Martin Luther King’s leadership approach contained the key prophetic elements essential for bringing about change; well grounded in a moral vision of human equality, built within a Christian theology, and driven to bring about a societal systemic change through a political renovation, not a revolution. There is a strong argument to support the notion that the Civil Rights movement gained its degree of success because of the concurrent, if not always unified, activity of these multiple types of religious leaders. I believe that the civil rights movement could not have achieved the degree of success it did without the extraordinary prophetic liberationist leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr..
Leadership as a Christian call for social reform was King’s prophetic legacy for future leaders. Lewis Baldwin cogently summarizes King’s political leadership theory, “While King stopped short of calling for a theocracy or a holy commonwealth, the separation of politics from religion remained as foreign to him as isolation of art from human struggle. For King, the very survival of the nation ultimately hinged on the capacity of government and religion to work together for the common good.”[xi] The nation survived and freedom grew because King demanded that all the people be included in the common good. Today’s ecclesial leaders might do well to follow King’s legacy as prophetic types of leaders. His effectiveness suggests that Christian leaders ground their calls for economic and social justice firmly with Christ’s message of love and human dignity for the least of our brothers and sisters.
[i] Richard Lischer, The Preacher King, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) pg. 5.
[ii] Ibid, pg. 6.
[iii] Ibid, pg. 119.
[iv] Ibid, pg 131.
[v] Ibid, pg. 61.
[vi] Ibid, pg. 27.
[vii] Certain King historians, including Lewis V. Baldwin conjecture that the rebellious/thoughtful young Martin would not have been allowed to enter the clergy if he was not the son of Daddy King.
[viii] Lischer, The Preacher King, pg. 30.
[ix] Ibid, pg. 37.
[x] Peter J. Paris, Black Religious Leaders Conflict in Unity, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), pg.17.
[xi] Lewis V. Baldwin, The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), pg. 158.
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