Martin Luther King, Jr.: Christian Radical—And Saint

King’s treatment in the media shows the degree to which, in the American mind, Christianity has been completely stripped of any radicalism.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

Of all the profane invocations of the name of Martin Luther King Jr. — many of them limp appeals to togetherness and unity, or other abstractions harmless and toothless — the most shameless are intended to discipline the masses. In these cases, King’s life is typically offered as an exemplar of passive subjugation, the cheapest interpretation of his non-violent acts of resistance.

It is disturbing enough to see King’s personal legacy distorted to serve the interests of the dominant class, but it is especially alarming to see such a pathetic domestication of Christianity on parade.

After protests erupted in response to a grand jury’s decision not to indict the killer of black teenager Michael Brown last December, sundry foot soldiers of the prevailing order emerged from the commetariat to urge adherence to King’s philosophy of loving your enemies” — that is, not to protest. The reasons were varied: some argued for principles, others for efficacy, and a few for the sake of tradition.

Aside from being cynically opportunistic, each reference to King’s life and work above also contains overtures gesturing to his Christian faith. It’s a kind of double-dose of misappropriation: first, the use of King to attempt to shame protestors into a position of passivity; and secondly, the invocation of Christianity as a bulwark against protest.

It is disturbing enough to see King’s personal legacy distorted to serve the interests of the dominant class, but it is especially alarming to see such a pathetic domestication of Christianity on parade.

King’s life and rhetoric were undoubtedly steeped in the Christian ethic of love and its attendant devotion to justice. But for contemporary interlocutors comfortable with the injustices of today, the inspiration of King’s faith stops there. This omission is not only dishonest to King’s historical legacy — dedicated, of course, to nonviolent protest — but it ignores the long history of Christian dissent in America itself.

As Lee Sustar observes, it wasn’t long after his death that the media hacks of the ruling class began to convert King into a harmless saint.” By the same process, it seems, the status of sainthood has been transformed into empty praise by the ruling régime. Headlines referring to King’s Christianity reveal the same story: Martin Luther King Was a Radical,” reads Peter Dreier’s Huffington Post piece commemorating the reverend, Not a Saint.”

The possibility of King having been both now seems impossible, which remarks not only upon King himself but upon the limits of Christian activism in contemporary American thought. To be properly Christian, such thinkers argue, is to be a saint, but to be a saint is to be harmless. And to be harmless is to be passive and to never approach radicalism.

King’s treatment in the media, in other words, demonstrates the degree to which, in the American mind, Christianity has been completely stripped of its inherent radicalism.

And what a loss that long tradition of radicalism is. In King’s Christian radical praxis and his thought, he meditated a great deal on the meaning of Christ’s command to love one’s enemies, most famously in his 1957 sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church:

This is what Jesus means, I think, in this very passage when he says, Love your enemy.” And it’s significant that he does not say, Like your enemy.” Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. …But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul.

To refuse to defeat an individual — that is, to refuse to act against a person in a way that does not include a redemptive goodwill towards them, as utter defeat is beyond redemption — is markedly different than assuming a posture of passive subjugation.

On the contrary, to refuse to destroy an evil-doer’s potential for redemption is to interrupt a social order that insists some are inherently less than others, that some will never acquire or deserve the dignity of others, that some can be shot and killed without any consequence. This is an order dependent on hard distinctions between the deserving and undeserving, the fit and the unfit.

But the Christian radical’s decision to interrupt this logic is explosive, as Slavoj Zizek writes in The Fragile Absolute: Instead of an eye for an eye!’ we get if someone slaps your right cheek, turn to him also your left cheek!’ — the point here is not stupid masochism, humble acceptance of one’s humiliation, but simply to interrupt the circular logic of re-establishing balance.”

This is because, fundamentally, Christianity is not a faith of balance”; it is not a religion that allows for some measure of both good and evil, and it does not proclaim the permanence of orders that sustain evil. If the balance of an oppressive order is restored by acts of mutual vengeance, then it makes sense for a Christian to withdraw from that cycle, and to refuse to legitimize it by participating.

But this refusal to engage in mutual acts of vengeance is no indictment of protest, and it underscores the radical element of the Christian faith that the King-crowing media elites conveniently omit: Christians must resist social orders that permit, produce, and normalize oppression. Withdrawal from the rituals that establish and sustain such social orders is only one part of a much larger radical Christian project: the undoing of oppression altogether, so that each person stands redeemable, and eventually equally redeemed. 

And yet the Christian tendency toward non-violence is instead often read as a form of passivity, or worse, a kind of acquiescence. Thus to bestow the title of saint” upon Martin Luther King means he can’t be considered a radical,” because the Christian practice of rejecting rituals that restore oppressive orders is, at the final analysis, unsettling to elites. It is safer for those who condemn protest and chasten the aggrieved to call on principles of humble submission than it is for them to accept the truth of the message they intend to manipulate.

But the radical truth of Christianity shines out from the life of Martin Luther King, from his selection of protest tactics to his sermons to his commitment to radical democratic socialist politics. Martin Luther King was a radical and a saint — the true calling of a true Christian.

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