In the last article, I shared two theological ideas which have helped my search for synthesis between conservative and liberal Christianity. In this series’ last article, I focus on the person whose practice of this synthesis has most inspired me in my journey.
Although Martin Luther King’s popular legacy has been secularised, his life and ministry is one of the best case-studies in the power of integrating the personal conviction of ‘conservative’ faith along with the social concern for justice of a ‘liberal’ faith.
Social and liberal
King described his own church upbringing as ‘fundamentalist’ and he was critical of the emotionalism and biblical literalism of the Southern Baptist culture in which he was raised. Whilst studying for a theology degree in Pennsylvania and then a PhD in Boston, he developed a more social and liberal understanding of God. Of his time as a student, he wrote:
‘Any religion which professes concern for the souls of men and is not equally concerned for the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions which cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried…A religion that ends with the individual, ends.’
Following his doctorate studies, King was offered three academic positions in Northern universities and church leadership roles in both New York and Massachusetts. Staying in the more liberal Northern States would offer a safer environment for him, his wife and future family. But although he already hated segregation, King decided to accept an offer to return to the South and to lead a church in Montgomery, Alabama. As he and his wife agreed:
We had a real desire to do something about the problems we had felt so keenly as youngsters. We never wanted to be considered detached spectators…
This decision, to return to the culture of his upbringing, armed with the intellectual depth of his theological studies, proved to be historic. Using the chart below, you could say King was raised in the blue, discovered the red but then returned to the context of the blue.
Just a few months into his new role at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, King was thrust into the leadership of bus boycotts, aged just 26. In this campaign he fused the two emphasises above in a prophetic synthesis.
With an unmatched eloquence, in countless sermons and speeches over the next 13 years, King articulated a personal spirituality which inspired the demands for social justice. On preaching he said
‘I see preaching as dual process. On the one hand I must attempt to change the soul of individuals so that their societies may be changed. On the other hand I must attempt to change societies so that the individual soul will have a change.’
Diagrams are limited in what they can illustrate, but rather than the dichotomies of the previous model, a synthesis could be illustrated like this:
In Christianity, a personal faith like a heart at the core of a body. The heart is not the whole body but plays a vital role in serving every other function. The strength of ‘conservative’ faith is the emphasis on personal belief; an assurance of forgiveness, of right doctrine, of personal and moral responsibility. This emphasis helps keep faith distinctive and explicit. The problem with ‘conservative’ faith is that too often it limits its influence to the personal sphere.
But this personal faith must be expressed socially otherwise it becomes individualistic, consumerist and self-serving. Personal faith should fire a concern for social justice, for activism which blesses the wider community, for inclusivity and helping others on their journey of faith. Distinctive and explicit faith needs often needs to be expressed in ways that are implicit and tolerant.
Rather than competing or arguing with each other, the different emphasises of conservatives and liberals are mutually interdependent: both need each other for faithful witness.
More than ever, I believe that facing our fears is central to the walk of faith.
Often we remain in tribal silos because that is where we feel safe. We fear ‘the other’ and their different perspectives or beliefs. We also fear putting our faith into action. We may be bold and clear within the walls of our church building on a Sunday. But come Monday, our confidence easily evaporates in the outside world.
The aspect of King’s life which has most inspired me is how he conquered his battles with fear. From the beginning of his ministry, death threats were a daily reality. Early on in the bus boycotts, the front of his house was blown off by a bomb which almost killed his wife and young daughter.
King’s courage to continue his work – and to maintain his non-violent stance – was anchored in his personal encounter with God. There are countless examples to quote but probably the best is his last public words in a speech in Memphis in 1968. They embody the synthesis of faith in action for which King lived, and died, for:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will…So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.