Student Showcase #7: The Prophetic Voice of Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, our essay continues on the theme from previous days about prophetic figures in contemporary popular culture. One of our most popular essay topics, students discuss the ways that various contemporary figures perform some of the same functions for which the biblical prophets were renowned, albeit in new secular contexts. Today, Francesca Lamont Vince discusses the prophetic credentials of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, arguing that he too performed a distinctively prophetic role during his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Francesca is an Aucklander, studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Media Studies and Art History. In the future, she hopes to travel overseas and fulfill her dream of becoming an art curator or art dealer. She took our Bible and Popular Culture course because she is familiar with the Bible and enjoyed learning about the ways societies interpret biblical texts and continue to portray them within contemporary culture. And she wrote a marvellous essay that I hope you all enjoy.

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Martin Luther King (Associated Press)

Martin Luther King Jr:

 A Modern-day Prophet Who Paved the Path to Equality and Justice

Francesca Lamont-Vince

This essay compares Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet to revered civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., and will conclude that King’s integral role in the Civil Rights Movement parallels the role of a biblical prophet. Like the biblical prophets, Martin Luther King Jr. had a passion for social justice, and devoted his life to liberating an oppressed group of people from unjust social systems. He maintained a close relationship with God and upheld the principles of his religion. He had a vision of racial equality and civil rights for all American citizens. King can be considered a modern-day prophet who delivered hope to the African American community. This essay will draw upon Marcus Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet to demonstrate that King had similar attributes and a similar role within his contemporary society.

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Associated Press

Borg argues that a prophetic figure emerges from a situation of oppression by the elites (Borg 127). Martin Luther King Jr. was raised in a society engrained with racial prejudices and discriminatory ideologies regarding black Americans. The mistreatment of African American people and institutionalized racism remained an inherent aspect of American society that King was exposed to. He studied in a segregated school, used segregated buses, witnessed extreme poverty around his neighbourhood, witnessed police brutality against black Americans, and he was racially abused, humiliated and insulted on a regular basis. Furthermore, as an African American person, King never had the full rights of a citizen and was an outsider in a systemically oppressive society.

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Mississippi police attempt to thwart MLK on a march, 1996 (AP)
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MLK arrested in Montgomery for ‘loitering’ (1958, AP)

The oppression suffered by the African American people parallels that of the Israelite people in the bible. Borg argues that biblical prophets such as Moses, emerged to indict the elites, their domination systems and their egalitarian social vision (128).  Similarly, King emerged and began challenging existing elitist structures and authorities that were racially unjust. Therefore, Martin Luther King Jr. fulfils Borg’s definition as he emerged from an oppressive society and interceded on behalf of the oppressed African American community for justice and liberation.

According to Borg, a prophetic figure exercises a passion for social justice (Borg 118). King advocated on behalf of the oppressed African American population and demonstrated a prophetic concern for social justice and equality. Firstly, he orchestrated many events, marches and protests in his effort to achieve justice for the African American community, and he dedicated his life to nonviolent resistance against social injustices. In a letter he composed while in Birmingham Jail in 1963, he claimed that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ (King 6). King defended the rights of African American people and protested for equality. King’s concern with achieving social justice can be compared to the biblical prophet Moses. After being approached by God in Exodus 3, Moses pledges to deliver the oppressed Hebrew people out of Egypt (Exod. 3:7).

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The Selma-Montgomery march, 1965 (AP)

Similarly, King advocated on behalf of the African American people, who were victims of oppressive and racist regimes in America. He wanted to end discriminatory ideologies that were engrained in American society. He also wanted to abolish unjust laws against black people and establish justice for all. King used his privileged identity as an educated pastor to advocate and provide solidarity to those who were suffering at the hands of the oppressors (Slessarev-Jamir 28). His plight for social justice could also mirror the message preached by the biblical prophet Amos in the Old Testament. Amos said to ‘Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice’ (Amos 5: 12-15). Amos rebuked inhumane treatment of the disadvantaged and oppressed, and emphasized the practice of righteous behaviour. Martin Luther King Jr. put this message into practice in his fight to gain equal rights for the African American citizens. Unlike Amos however, King did not condemn the perpetrators of racism but rather he preached to ‘Love your enemies’ and that manifested itself in his nonviolent resistance approach (Ramsay 34). Overall, King denounced and protested moral evils, social inequalities and unjust social systems. In this way, he can be considered a social justice leader and thus fulfils one of Borg’s fundamental conceptions of a prophetic figure.

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Associated Press

Borg argues that prophets gained their inspiration, sense of mission and passion through their relationship with God and their religion (123-124). King was brought up in a Christian family, and was therefore exposed to Christian teachings. In 1954, he commenced his pastoral ministry in Montgomery. Thus, he was deeply familiar with the Christian teachings and values. Borg proposed that biblical prophets were agents of God, and that their purpose was to articulate God’s “dream” and purpose (138). It is evident that God was central in King’s life and motivated his actions as a leader. Essentially, King thought of himself as a mediator between God and Man, as he wanted to impart the divine wisdom of God to the American society. In his autobiography, he stated ‘I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced him before’ (Ramsay 36). He wrote that an inner voice told him to ‘stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, and God will be at your side forever’ (36).

Calling on God to answer for suffering can be considered an important aspect of contemporary religious prophetic activism (Slessarev-Jamir 37). King felt that is was his calling and duty as a Christian to bear God’s message of love and justice for all, and that manifested itself in the Civil Rights Movement he led. A quote from Deuteronomy captures the essence of a prophet as a mouthpiece for God, as King himself was. ‘I will raise up for them a prophet, like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command’ (Deut. 18:18-19).

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Associated Press

Furthermore, Borg argues that biblical prophets acquired the courage for their mission from God (124). Just as the biblical prophet Jeremiah was beaten, threatened with death, and imprisoned, King too suffered death threats and acts of aggression, such as bombing and imprisonment (Borg 125). King remained resilient and brave in the face of the violent threats that were imposed on him and he indebted this courage to God. During the movement, King’s nonviolent approach toward the opposition was largely inspired by his Christian values. He encouraged the activists to passively resist against their oppressors, rather than impose violence. In his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ he stated, ‘I’m grateful to God that, through the Negro church, the dimension of nonviolence entered our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood’ (King 1). King therefore drew upon his Christianity to endorse nonviolent resistance. Upon analysing King’s actions and approaches during the civil rights movement, it is fair to say he was influenced by and highly connected to his spirituality and his relationship with God, just as the biblical prophets were. He not only considered his mission a moral responsibility, but also his responsibility as God’s devout servant.

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March on Washington 1963 (photo by Rowland Scherman)

Borg argues that prophets practiced ‘prophetic energizing’ to generate hope, and a vision of a better future (130). King shared a vision and dream for equality, liberation and civil rights for all American people. In his famous ‘I have a Dream Speech’ in 1963, King’s vision for the future is explicitly communicated. He argued that it was time to make ‘real promises of democracy,’ to achieve racial justice and to fulfil God’s vision of equality between all men (Sundquist and Miller 230). King then shared his aspirations and vision for the future of America, in the hopes that he would inspire his audiences. He stated, ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character…that little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers’ (232-33).

Similarly, Amos’ writings invoked hope and the prospect of change in the future. King acknowledged this when he quoted Amos in his speech; ‘let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:24). This is also an example of the way King utilized the radical bible to communicate his message of hope and change. Throughout his career, King often alluded to the ‘Promised Land’ predominantly spoken about by Moses in the bible (Exod. 12:25). He refers to the ‘Promised Land’ to arouse hope and the prospect of a better future for America. King fulfils the role of prophet as consoler, giving hope to the otherwise hopeless hearer (Rabe 25). King’s speeches, sermons and writings embodied a prophetic rhetoric, and he empowered the African American people by sharing a ‘dream’ and vision of equality to come.

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King delivers his ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington, 1963 (AP)

Overall, Martin Luther King Jr. can be considered a prophetic figure because he initiated change in his community and had a dream for social reformation in America. This essay has compared King to Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet. King emerged from an oppressive, racist society with unjust systems, and embodied the role of a prophetic figure who challenged this. He had an immense passion for social justice, similar to that expressed by Moses and Amos in the bible. Furthermore, King was largely influenced by the principles of his religion and believed his actions were guided by God. Lastly, King delivered a hopeful vision of the future to the American people, that of a nation who embodied equality and justice.

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References

All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV.

Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. Harper San Francisco, 2001.

King Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Letter from Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963, pp.1-12.

Rabe, Kent T. The False Security of the Believer. Xulon Press, 2008.

Ramsay, William M. Four Modern Prophets: Walter Rauschenbusch, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gustavo Gutiérrez, Rosemary Radford Ruether. Westminster John Knox Press, 1986.

Slessarev-Jamir, Helene. Prophetic Activism: Progressive Religious Justice Movements in Contemporary America. NYU Press, 2011.

Sundquist, Eric J. and Mark Crispin Miller. King’s Dream: The Legacy of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech. Yale University Press, 2009.

 

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