King’s God

Just before New Years, my husband and I flew to Memphis for a couple of days.  Just because.

We went in part because we had never been there before, in part because we had two Air Tran tickets we had to use or lose, in part because we had heard there was a hotel downtown, the Peabody, which was old and elegant, with live ducks swimming around in a fountain in the lobby, in part because of Beale Street and the blues – my husband’s second love (I hope). That Memphis is said to be home to three kings: BB King and the other two Kings, Elvis and Martin Luther King Jr, memorialized in statues there.

So we stayed just that one night in the grandly restored hotel and delighted in the trained young mallards, waddling on cue at 11 am and 5 pm. We took part in happy hour at the BB King club and listened to a third rate knock off band. And because it was too cold and damp to do much of anything else, or so we rationalized it, we signed up for a mostly indoor tour of Graceland, and much to our surprise had an absolute ball: checking out the jungle room and the trophy room, with its dozens of gold and platinum records, and the other rooms in what is actually a modest mansion, standing at his grave, still piled high with flowers and handwritten tributes and prayers for his soul.

And then we visited the third stop on what had become a Three Kings tour, the former Lorraine Motel, now a National Civil Rights Museum.

When we moved South almost 17 years ago we vowed to see it in all its stereotype and reality, especially the major sites of the Civil Rights movement history: Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma,  and of course Atlanta.

But never made it before to Memphis, the furthest away, the place that Martin Luther King Jr. had agreed to come in 1968 to help sanitation workers , in his own words ” to bring the colored people of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect… determined to be people.”

He came to Memphis in March of that year to highlight economic injustice as much as racial injustice, even while those men who marched with him during what was to become his last march were to a one black men, black men carrying signs simply stating: I am a man.

The march turned ugly and violent at its edges, a real setback for both the cause of the workers and the non-violent imperative of King’s justice work, so he agreed to return for another one in April.

He never made the second march. He was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, a place that accommodated blacks, just as he was preparing to leave for a private dinner.

Right before the fatal shot rang out, he was re-introduced by Jesse Jackson to Ben Branch, a singer and saxophonist with the Operation Breadbasket Band. They would be performing at a rally that evening.

“Ben,” King was reported to have said as he stood by the railing, “I want you to sing Precious Lord for me like you never sung it before.. tonight, especially for me, I want you to sing it real pretty.”

He never lived to hear it again. It had been his favorite song and he often had requested gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to sing it at civil rights gatherings to inspire the crowds; at his request she sang it at his funeral. It was also recorded by Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Elvis Presley.

Precious Lord, the lyrics go, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light, take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home…. When the darkness appears and the night draws near and the day is past and gone. At the river I stand, guide my feet, hold my hand, take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

Guide my feet.  A deeply personal relationship with a directly experienced God, solidly in the Black gospel tradition in which God and Jesus stand with the suffering, leading them through despair to liberation and redemption.

Guide my feet.   We sing this spiritual from our own hymnal with some frequency. We have sometimes chosen this hymn when we do our own marching, as many of us have regularly, including the annual Martin Luther King Day event in downtown Atlanta.

Guide my feet while I run this race cause I don’t want to run this race, in vain, race in vain.

Well we weren’t racing last Monday, the thirty or so of us who hurried up and waited nearly two hours to take our place in the march to the King Center.

We were standing around, a lot, an intergenerational contingent with Coming of Age youth and their mentors, families with small children, and elders who had made the trek many times before. So at some point, we decided to come up with and practice some songs.

This time we picked just a couple of songs to sing at first – We are a Gentle Angry People and This Little Light of Mine, the first a marker song of our UU faith tradition, written by Holly Near, with its inclusive language – we are a justice seeking people, we are black and white together, young and old together, gay and straight together singing, singing for our lives. This Little Light of Mine was picked because of its easy melody and words, its uplifting cadence, its message of hope, the reminder of our chalice.

We sang these over and over again as we made our way past the largest crowds I can remember, perhaps because of the lateness of our starting time, perhaps because of the rare good weather. And then we added another, one of our newest songs, Standing on the Side of Love, just the chorus.

Feeling good, buoyed by the sunshine and the camaraderie, in the spirit of King we walked down Auburn Avenue, holding up our congregational banners and signs asking for marriage rights for all and an end to war.  Just as we stopped in front of the original Ebenezer Baptist Church, King’s home church, two white men holding up a hand-scrawled placard: What God Loves, What God Hates, began to taunt us. It was hard to hear what they were saying and impossible to read their list of divine dos and don’ts, but the tone was crystal clear, and their faces were contorted with contempt, if not hatred.

In that moment of trying to discern something like What Would Martin Do?, I decided to take an offensive of sorts — to turn and face our hecklers, and to sing as loudly and forcefully as we could- We are Standing on the Side of Love.  Over and over again, ignoring their steady stream of invective.

We are standing on the side of love, hands clasped together as hearts beat as one. Emboldened by faith, we dare to proclaim we are standing on the side of love.

We were out there on MLK Day standing on the side of love as our national campaign asserts: Standing on the side of love because every major religion has compassion and love at its center. Staying true to our religious values because that means standing on the side of love. Convinced that too much of our public discourse is driven not by love but by fear, which often scapegoats particular people and deems them somewhat less than human. Which is a violation of all faiths that are centered in love. That Standing on the Side of Love means harnessing the power of love to stop oppression, exclusion and violence.

In that moment, on this particular MLK Day, I truly did believe that we were standing on the side of love in King’s name, and in the name of the God and the very familiar faith that he embraced.

If that sounds and seems presumptuous, or just another attempt to project Unitarian Universalist identity onto yet another famous and admirable figure, this may be so.

However, I was influenced by a couple of recent developments in our relationship with King and his theology, where King stood on God. Who was the God who guided his feet? It seems closer to Unitarian Universalism than had been documented before.

The first development was the enormously thrilling announcement in May of last year that our own Beacon Press had signed an exclusive agreement to partner with the estate of Martin Luther King Jr. in a new publishing program “The King Legacy”, giving Beacon the sole right to print new editions of previously published King titles and to compile Dr. King’s writings, sermons, orations, lectures and prayers into entirely new editions, including significant new introductions by leading scholars. The first re-issued title Where Do We Go From Here?, King’s final manuscript was just released. It has originally been published by Beacon Press in paperback in 1968.

Dexter Scott King, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’ sons, has said that Beacon Press is one of America’s most courageous and visionary publishers, and there is every reason to believe they will do an outstanding job publishing his works and distributing them to the largest possible audience.

Michele Rubin, literary agent for the King estate in a recent interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, told her interviewer that Beacon Press had a lot going for it in the decision to make it the exclusive trade publisher for his books. First that they are completely editorially independent of any enormous multinational media conglomerate. That they are non-profit.

And that they are affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Our UU commitment, she noted, to social justice and the politics that Dr. King stood for go way back.

So we have the King Estate, the heirs and the literary agent, handing to us the task and privilege of continuing to publish his works, because of our reputation as a press and because of an alignment of values around justice and other causes.

But does that mean that King’s religious values were in the same alignment, even so that we might claim him theologically, at least in part, as one of our own?

Did the man raised in a traditional, fundamentalist black church tradition, a fourth generation Black Baptist pastor, come to be a religious liberal? Would he have been comfortable under our theological umbrella?  If times had been different and our racial make-up different, would he – as a non-orthodox Christian and a theist–have considered being part of our movement, not just our causes, but our underlying religious and spiritual sensibilities?

An article in the November/December of 2009 issue of Tikkun magazine by Robert James “Be” Scofield, a spiritual activist and Master of Divinity student at Starr King School for the Ministry explores in some depth the progressive Christianity of Martin Luther King Jr., focusing on his understanding of the doctrines of the Church as expressed in a series of papers written during his seminary years. As Scofield writes, he wanted to provide an intimate look at the young King as he struggled to reconcile religion with a changing, dynamic, and modern world. And ultimately placing him solidly in our Unitarian Christian source of our living tradition.

This spiritual struggle, Scofield and other King scholars, have discovered, started for King at a very young age.  For King’s family of origin, Sundays (and most other days) were devoted to church: family prayer, passages of scripture and fundamentalist teachings, including the inerrancy of the bible and the virgin birth, accepted without question.

As one of his biographers wrote, religion was never separated from life for him, they were so intertwined. His parents pushed him hard from the beginning to be a minister — it was expected. So he sang church solos at age six and at seven he joined his father’s church, not because of a conversionary moment, a sudden revelation, but out of a competitive desire, King confessed, to keep up with his sister, who had just heeded the altar call.

By 13, however, like many of you here today, he is said to have admitted to have major qualms with the dogmas of his church and upbringing, increasingly skeptical, he would recall, of Sunday School Christianity and the unbridled emotionalism that was normative in the black church tradition.  At that young age, he found himself already denying basic doctrines, such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and from there as King later said, “doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly.”

What he did take away from his formative years was his father’s ministerial commitment to prophetic critique as part of the Black Christian social gospel movement, and his private teachings about self-worth, respect for the humanity and dignity of others, what is called a homespun personalism, a belief in a personal and infinitely loving God, in whose plan humans are not a means, but an end in themselves.  That we, each one of us, matter to God.

From his mother, in addition to a strict behavioral code- no drinking, smoking, dancing, or premarital sex – that Martin struggled with, he also received the message that he was a Somebody, created in the image of God, and a sense of the transforming power of and duties of the Christian life.

By high school, Martin had at least privately rejected the vocation of ministry, asking how religion could be both intellectually respectable and emotionally satisfying. He saw himself as a doctor or a lawyer. It took the teaching and guidance of Morehouse professors such as Benjamin Elijah Mays to convince him to revisit his ministry, who urged him to re-read biblical scripture from the perspective of the deep abiding truths behind the myths, to remove the shackles of fundamentalism, to be rigorous in his studies of text and examination of dogma, to be committed to a social Christianity undergirded by the ethical ideals of the Jewish and Christian faiths.

At the liberal Crozer Seminary, his family teachings about a loving God and the worth and dignity of each person were formally framed by his studies in social gospel and key philosophers including Hegel, convincing him that there was a prophetic element in history– God calling us to our better selves — and immutable moral laws in the universe, laws of love, that superseded all other civic laws. As a young man preaching, King would often quote our own Unitarian abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, who wrote “the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice,” that because the universe is inherently infused with justice, with the right, that justice will ultimately win out.

He came to re-affirm for himself a God who was both supremely powerful and extremely good-who created the world out of love for the good of all.

But unlike the white creators and followers of the Christian social gospel movement, King did not believe it was enough to proclaim a doctrine of Christian responsibility and social activism.  As one author observed about King’s approach to transformation, Blacks had to do it. Meaning they had to do the work of building the kingdom of God on earth, instead of just preaching on it.

And given his own experiences of racism, King’s view of human nature tempered religiously liberal faith in inevitable progress with the fact, as he wrote, that reason is often darkened by sin, that element of corruption in individual and corporate behaviors. But finally, in his view, “grace” abounded, the possibility for personal and societal redemption and transformation.

By the time he finished a PhD in systematic theology at Boston University, studying the 20th century giants –Tillich, Wieman, Niebuhr and Bath– he laid out his understanding, as Scofield tells us, of the core doctrines of the Christian faith. An understanding that has been the subject of angry critique in all sorts of places, including a recent blog on the website, wherein the author says that while she is Black and glad she no longer has to sit in the back of the bus or enter the back door of a hotel or look for a colored sign to relieve herself, but that she wonders whether MLK Jr. is in hell right now on account of his beliefs. She questions, in other words, his ultimate salvation, given that he challenged the doctrines such as the Trinity, the substitutionary theory of the Atonement, and the Second Coming of Christ.

And challenge them he did, from his view of the divinity of Jesus, which he believed was not thrust on him from above, but achieved through the process of moral struggle and self-abnegation, a prototype, he wrote, of one among many brothers, to his denouncement of the return of Jesus, saying that the final doctrine of the Second Coming is whenever we turn our lives to the highest and best there is for us in Christ.

He denied a physical heaven or hell in a Copernican world, saying “in reality I know nothing about heaven… personally I don’t believe in hell in the conventional sense.”

The Kingdom of God, for him, was not a cataclysmic future time, but the eternal love of God on earth, and whenever we judged ourselves against the life and teachings of Jesus was the Judgment Day.

He denied the doctrine of atonement, noting that if Christ by his life and death paid the full penalty of sin, then there is no valid ground for repentance or moral obedience as a condition of forgiveness.

Dr. King believed the Bible was written in a pre-scientific world and used language representative of that era, not a textbook, as he described it, written with divine hands, but as a portrayal of the experiences of men written in particular historical situations. It was not the highest use of critique, he held, to prove or disapprove the text as factual, rather to discover what moral implications we may find growing out of the Bible and the relevance Jesus has for these times.

All of these tenets of our Unitarian and Universalist Christian sources.

Beyond his progressive Christian beliefs, he wrote that to discuss Christianity without mentioning other religions would be like discussing the greatness of the Atlantic Ocean without the many tributaries that kept it flowing, including pagan religious contributions, and even proposing the possibility that at some point that Christianity might not be the crowning achievement of religious progress.

While Scofield’s examination of King’s theology focused on his seminary years, he reminds us that while there were numerous opportunities for him to express different, more Orthodox Christian understandings of these key doctrines over the years, he did not. So he tells us it is not surprising that although Dr. King decided to serve the Baptist Church and remain in the exclusively black church tradition — despite his condemnation of some of his fellow pastors as more concerned with the size of the wheelbase on their cars then making the church recapture its authentic reign, the failure to see Christianity’s revolutionary edge — he was indeed drawn to Unitarian Christianity. We are reminded Coretta had attended Unitarian churches for years before she met and married Martin, and they both attended Unitarian services while in Boston.

Based on his careful reading of the young minister’s seminary papers and the personal theology that emerged, Scofield speculates that King’s decision to remain within the Baptist denomination had as much to do with his assessment that he would probably not be able to play a significant role in the civil rights movement if he chose to join the Unitarian tradition than any religious dissonance or misgivings.

Would Martin as a black man with convictions about a very personal God, a love for the Jesus who in his understanding became a divine exemplar, and a strong sense of sin be fully welcome in our UU movement today?

Would he experience enough camaraderie, both in fellowship and spiritual growth?

Would he find this an effective place of social witness?

I hope so as we stand in support of the search for truth and meaning.

And on the side of love.