Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Matthew 21:42)
Martin Luther King is a globally well-known figure. His birthday is celebrated as a national holiday. There are more than 700 streets in the US named after him, and a granite monument to him stands in the national mall in DC; many politicians appeal to his moral authority to justify their partisan interests, for better and worse. He is globally respected as a leading icon of nonviolence alongside Gandhi.
Since his death, there has been a consistent attempt to canonize and appropriate his name as a leader of today’s nation, while confining his achievements and advocacy to the past. The message is that his dream has been fulfilled with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights laws, and the election of Obama. The result was to deradicalize and sanitize him within the creeds of white America, which nominally include civil rights, liberal democracy, free market economy, American exceptionalism. Meanwhile his troubling history of womanizing and plagiarism have been exhumed and scrutinized, giving further license to some to move away from his legacy and claim that his ministry and ethics are no longer relevant to our religiously diverse postmodern society.
On the other hand, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the election of Trump, there has been a renewed attempt to rediscover King’s legacy, with attention to King’s economic justice, faith-based vision of America as well as his globalism. In this vein, I propose his ethics as a cornerstone for the renewal of America in a globalizing world. His legacy goes beyond the passage of specific legislation and encompasses his very vision for humanity and life together. King, inspired by his Christian faith, points toward a new, different kind of America. Although he lived in the past, he still compellingly speaks for the future of humanity.
In particular, my inquiry about King’s legacy focuses on three areas: America (the collective life of the nation), evangelicalism, and theological education (at Fuller Seminary). I ask: What is King’s significance for our nation today? Is there anything that evangelicals can learn from him? What does King’s ministry (as a Baptist pastor) mean for theological education today? These questions are important for those of us who gathered here, and I believe that King has something to offer for us.
With these introductory thoughts in mind, allow me to share a few thoughts.
It was a spring day in Memphis. A heavy rain was beating mercilessly on the roof of Mason Temple. The sporadic crackling of thunder scared people off the streets. The gloomy weather that night suited King’s depressed mood.1 Dark clouds of anxiety and fear weighed heavily on his soul. Criticism was mounting, suspicion was constantly chasing him, doubts were growing even among his faithful followers, and lethal threats were increasingly encroaching on his life. The bomb scare on the plane that morning had reinforced his sense of being besieged by hostile forces.
In his last years, King was rejected by the reigning builders of America, namely politicians, white media, and even black civil rights leaders, because of his critique of the Vietnam War and his launching of the Poor People’s campaign. At the time of his death, an overwhelming 63 percent of Americans disapproved of him.
Against this backdrop of the declining moral and financial support of people for his movement, King delivered what was to be his last sermon, “I See the Promised Land,” to a mostly African American audience. In many ways, this sermon, preached one day before his assassination, tells who King was and what his ministry was about. It discloses his deep inner conflict, as a fragile human being, struggling between life and death, between the desire for longevity and a commitment to God’s kingdom. Yet its revelatory power shines through his psychology. The sermon shows how King spiritually responded to the negatives impinging upon him. Despite growing threats and betrayals, he refused to give in to fear, but relied more on God. King confronted hostile and depressing realities with inner resources found in his personal relationship with God and the fellowship in his community.
King concluded his sermon by declaring, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” For me, this line, framed in the rich symbolism of the Exodus story, succinctly summarizes King’s life, ministry, and vision. Thus, in the rest of my speech, I will reflection upon this passage to explore the meaning and significance of his legacy in three areas: our nation, evangelicalism, and theological education. I ask: What is King’s moral significance for our nation today? Is there anything that evangelicals can learn from him? What does King’s ministry, as a Baptist pastor, mean for theological education today? These questions are important for those of us who gathered here, and I believe that King has something to offer for us. In what sense does this concluding passage of the sermon sum up his life, vision, and ministry?
First, this sentence tells about his life. His life was, metaphorically speaking, similar to Moses’. He spent 13 years of his public ministry fighting against the Egypt of racism, militarism, and classism while guiding people and the nation to the promised land. Sensing his life will end soon without the fulfillment of his dream, he compares his life to the destiny of Moses. And like Moses, he accepts his fate and encourages people not to stop their journey toward God’s promised land.
Second, King’s vision. This concluding remark poetically represents King’s deepest yearning for a new, just society free from injustices. King often used the beloved community interchangeably with the promised land. Borrowed from Josiah Royce, the beloved community describes a just, righteous, pluralistic, and interdependent community where individual rights and solidarity are simultaneously respected, and every person works for his/her excellence to serve the general well-being and the common good. Mutual love and social support are available for everyone’s flourishing. In short, the beloved community is the place where God’s shalom dwells.
Third, King’s ministry. If the vision denotes the goal that we pursue, then ministry indicates the process and means that we use to achieve the goal. In understanding King’s public ministry, I want to pay close attention to the phrase “We as a people” in this sentence. With this phrase, King is stressing that the collective formation of peoplehood is the key to enter the promised land. As we know, this phrase “we as a people” implies the covenanted people of God who pledge to live under God and God’s new values. By emphasizing “we as a people,” he is reminding us that the vision of the promised land is not achieved by politics alone; it requires new values and a new people—the revolutionary transformation of the values of a society and transformation of its people.
These new values are nonviolent, based on the solidarity of God’s creation. They are egalitarian, where not only civil-political rights but also basic economic-social rights are respected. It is inclusive and multiracial rather than sectional or tribal. Thus the people who live by these values reject racism by welcoming other races, classism by protecting the oppressed, militarism by not trusting in horses and chariots, and materialism by worshipping not Baal and Mammon but God alone. King was convinced that a new society should be based on this vision of the beloved community and new values, and it’s this vision and values that King died for. What is the relevance of his vision and ministry for our nation today?
Global Community. King’s vision of the beloved community is relevant because globalization forces us to think of humanity as one family, sharing a common destiny and fate, whether we like it or not. Without collaboration and some form of shared ethics, humanity is at risk of perishing. Social Darwinism, neoliberal capitalism, religious fundamentalism, and superpower militarism cannot achieve this goal; rather they are exacerbating the situations that threaten the very existence of humanity and the planet, because, as we know, they engender fear, anxiety, insecurity, alienation, and hatred rather than solidarity and collaboration.
Nation. Our nation desperately needs renewal as we see in the unraveling of its democratic system under the chaotic presidency of Trump and its exploitation by corporate oligarchies. Since King’s death, America’s decay has deepened; when the Cold War ended, it briefly experienced a peak of economic prosperity; but blinded and intoxicated by its own pride, power, and hedonism, its neoliberalism and militarism have steadily expanded and white supremacy has still never been fully addressed. Regardless of its political, economic, and military achievements, its morality has been backsliding. We live with the ongoing threat of random gun violence, the highest rate of wealth inequality since the Great Depression, two unending wars, and the rise of white nationalism under Trump’s presidency. Now it is being called Satan by some other nations. America’s source of decay is deep and pervasive, as we see in the divide between the red and the blue states, spread of fake news and cynicism. If the nation continues down this path, it will only see further deepening of internal corruption and conflicts, and exhaustion by war. As King pointed out, we need a revolutionary transformation of values as a nation.
King’s Ethics as a Cornerstone
Abraham Heschel once noted: “The whole future of America will depend upon the impact and influence of MLK.” In a similar vein, Vincent Harding also said, Martin Luther King Jr. was a citizen of a country that has not yet existed. Although these statements are given by King’s close allies, they are nevertheless remarkable. What do these statements mean, and are they true?
Matthew 21:42 helps us understand the meaning of Heschel’s statement. In this passage and others (for example, the house built upon the rock in Matt 7:25), the stone signifies a new set of values that are consistent with God’s character. In other words, a cornerstone stands for a new value system upon which a new society is to be built. Ironically, however, such a stone is hidden from the eyes of the builders and being rejected by them, who should know very well about the quality of each stone! Jesus was killed because of the revolutionary values he preached and practiced, and so were the prophets. In this sense, King’s fate was similar to that of Jesus and other prophets. King was rejected by white power and other blacks who wanted to be accepted by whites, because rather than staying within prescribed white boundaries and playing their game, he challenged their moral system and assumptions. White America, whether liberal or conservative, could not stand his moral challenge because King was perceived as a threat to their social system grounded in the values of whiteness, material possession, and violence.
What are the implications of this observation for evangelicals? One distinctive characteristic of evangelicalism is that it is God- Jesus-, and Bible-centered. In this sense, King was a true evangelical! As we saw in his response to threats to his life and betrayal, he understood who God is and what God wants. He trusted God and lived out God’s values without compromise. King’s ethics are a good alternative to the prevalent form of current evangelical ethics. In my view, King was one of the best interpreters of Jesus’ politics in a modern American context. He understood God’s intention for humanity more comprehensively and deeply than others.
King’s ethics are coherent, capacious, and compelling as they creatively interwove the Old Testament and the New Testament, the exodus and the Sermon on the Mount. That is to say, King’s ministry was patterned after Moses in terms of political vision, but after Jesus in his concrete love ethics. The combination produced nonviolent ethics with Exodus as its narrative framework, which is liberative and relational, militant and nonviolent, righteous and loving, prophetic and humble.
What is his lesson for us? We need more leaders like King today. And the seminary needs to be the community that raises them.
1) King was effective because he was a good theologian. He was able to offer a coherent and capacious moral framework that is deeply biblical and socially relevant at the same time. It was possible because he took theological education seriously and his seminary provided a good theological education.
2) King was effective because he asked big questions, such as how to overcome racism in a Christian way. We need to help our students to ask big questions. The formation of good Christian leaders comes from the big questions it asks. King famously asked, “Where do we go from here?” It also comes from the answers it offers through a deep understanding of the Bible and human history. For King, that answer was: “We as a people will get to the promised land.” It finally helps form authentic practices that implement Christian convictions. The seminary is the place where people ask those questions and find tentative answers to those questions and learn how to practice them. Can the seminary help put these foundational questions to young people, as King did, help them deepen and refine these questions, and find answers (even if it’s just a glimpse)? I believe that the best of our theology, history, and anthropology can help construct a compelling ethics of engagement, if we allow these questions to first expand our Christian imagination and deepen our theology.
3) At the same time, we need to raise radicals of the kingdom, who King called creatively maladjusted people. Our world needs many dedicated people who are willing to break out of the social mold of moral complacency, spiritual insensitivity, and political aloofness. Such people are those who are willing to be maladjusted in the status quo of injustice, violence, and self- indulgence for the sake of the great world house. The world has made moral progress through such persons. Maladjusted, they were a threat to the power and status quo because they were unconventional in their refusal to conform to the unjust patterns of their societies.
At the 50th anniversary of King’s death we revisit his question: “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” The existential choice between chaos and community seems even more acute than in King’s time. And more people now wrestle with this question than ever.
There is a real danger that America’s decay will continue, American evangelicalism will become further discredited, and the American seminary will wither. As the nation searches its soul, King’s vision and ministry for humanity are still compelling, even 50 years after his tragic death. As I discussed above, King’s vision of the beloved community and his ethics of formation of a new peoplehood offer a firm starting point for our search for renewal of the nation, a new evangelical identity, and direction for theological education. It begins with the revolutionary transformation of social values and people who are committed to them.
It is my prayer and hope that Fuller will become such a seminary that turns the stones that have been abandoned by the builders into a cornerstone of a new, just society. God’s churches will be rebuilt by those people, and our nation and the world will be grateful for the marvelous things that God did through them, just as many (both Christians and non-Christians) today are grateful to King’s ministry for humanity.
+ Hak Joon Lee, Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics, delivered this lecture on May 2, 2018, during Where Do We Go From Here?, a series of lectures commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The lectures were sponsored by the William E. Pannell Center for African American Church Studies on the occasion of the new William E. Pannell African American Church Studies Collection and Seminar and Research Room on the second floor of the Hubbard Library.