Martin Luther King and Counterintuitive Living

I heard screamin’
And bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?

Neil Young, “Southern Man”

On September 15, 1963, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed. Dynamite sent bricks and glass flying, and killed four young black girls who were preparing to lead the annual Youth Day worship service. The grandfather of one of the girls, an eleven year old, came sobbing from the church clutching her shoe. On the other side of the world, the Moscow paper Izvestia described the event as a “massacre of the innocents.”

At one point as grief settled upon them, Diane Nash and James Bevel, key leaders in the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King raged in sorrow, and seriously considered becoming vigilantes. They would identify, stalk, and kill the bombers – the “Black Muslim option.”

Other responses to this horrific event were hardly righteous. Some Southern Baptist leaders drafted a resolution of sympathy for the stricken congregation, but the Southern Baptist Convention rejected it. The largest interracial collection of clergy ever in Birmingham gathered for the funerals, but no city officials attended. President Kennedy himself expressed outrage and grief, but as Taylor Branch explains “carefully pledged the full power of the federal government to the ‘detection’ of those responsible, rather than to conviction or trial.”

Only Dr. King proved unwavering to his principle of loving nonviolence:

“History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city…. We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.”

He said these words because this is what he lived. These words expressed the core philosophy of his life and ministry. It was necessary, as Frederick Douglass  had said before him, to save “black men’s bodies and white men’s souls.” The real goal, King said, was not to defeat the white man but “to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority…. The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.”

When I read the Sermon on the Mount and hear Jesus tell his followers to turn the other cheek, or to love their enemies, I wonder, “How can we?” When we’re wronged, the desire for revenge goes deep. When we’re purposely, viciously hurt, we want to hurt back. Of course Jesus models what he preached about loving nonviolence better than anyone, “Father, forgive them.” he prayed from the cross – but, I say to myself, “That was Jesus!”

And so, when someone who was definitely not the God-man, who was definitely not made of anything but the clay I’m made of, does what Dr. King did, I’m awestruck. Perhaps loving my enemies and turning the other cheek is not only for the dispensation of the Kingdom! Perhaps such responses are possible (and expected) now.

How was Dr. King able to do it? He believed. He believed at his very core in something that seems against logic to us. He believed that hate must be met with love. That indeed, only love was sufficient to conquer hate, and that love must be radical – willing to suffer and bleed in it’s work to save both the oppressed and the oppressor. He believed in the human dignity of his enemies – those same people who would use a cattle prod or fire hose on him. He believed in loving them.

We will not learn this way of life from Hollywood films or television shows. It won’t be modeled for us by our drinking buddies at the local watering hole, or by the N.R.A. leadership. We may not even learn it in church. (It took the Southern Baptist Convention 30 years to repent of it’s shameful response.) We’ll only learn it from Jesus, and people like Frederick Douglass, Gandhi and Martin Luther King – all of whom learned it from Jesus.

Our world is unfamiliar with this kind of love. If we can learn it and live it out before them, not only against all of their expectations, but counter to every natural instinct of our own, who knows what impact we might have in our world? It’s counterintuitive living at it’s best, if we can only live it.

8 thoughts on “Martin Luther King and Counterintuitive Living

  1. robakers says:

    Great post. I wish I would have thought of it!

  2. Jim says:

    Congratulations on your new blog. You have already succeeded in making your first entry thought provoking. Here’s my view of this subject, a view from a different perspective.
    It is indeed M.L.K. day and as such it is appropriate to reflect on a man who lost (not gave) his life in the pursuit of racial equality and peace; noble endeavors to be sure. All men and women should seek these things and speak out against hatred and bigotry whenever and wherever they are found.
    If you were diagnosed with cancer and the doctor told you that you had a choice between two different medications, one that treated the cancer and the other one that cured the cancer, which one would you chose?
    I submit that the philosophy of Frederick Douglas, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King represent the first medication offered. This philosophy has other names; it is the social gospel of liberation theology and the exemplarist gospel of ‘the sermon on the mount.” They are fine worldly treatments for the disease of racism and hatred, but not the cure.
    In 1524 another man named Martin Luther responded to his friend Erasmus in what was originally titled De Servo Arbitrio more commonly known as The Bondage of the Will. As you probably know Erasmus believed man’s will, to choose between good and evil, was free. Martin Luther disagreed and understood mans will was only free within the confines of mans nature, and since man was and is born sinful, then his will was held in bondage to this sinful nature.
    Luther reasoned like this. A pig has the nature of a pig. If he wills to do anything it must be within his nature to do it. For example, if a pig willed to wallow in the mud, he had the free will to do so. But if he willed to fly, he couldn’t, that would not be within his ability and therefore no matter how hard he tried, he could not behave contrary to his nature. The Bible puts it simply; can a leopard change his spots, or an Ethiopian the color of his skin?
    The social gospel tries to get pigs to fly, but try as it might and as much as it may want to, it just cannot do it. Man’s nature remains the same and their wills are bound. Unmerited suffering in this context changes nothing. It is painful and its benefits are short lived.
    Classic Christianity is the second choice. It is not a treatment for sin in this world, it is the cure. Through the totally free gift of regeneration by the Holy Spirit, sinful men are born again, their stony hearts are replaced with hearts of flesh, old things have passed away all things have been made new. The goat is now a sheep and the old pig can fly!
    Only through the unmerited suffering of Jesus Christ, who GAVE his life, for it was not taken against his will, can we find true efficacious redemption and reconciliation with God whom we have lived in enmity with for so long.
    Once this has been done, once we have repented of OUR sins and truly hated OUR sins, not just our brothers sins, and put our trust in the finished work of Christ can we lives of peace and love. We are able to love only because He loved us first. If you take his redemptive work out of the equation and only see him as a model for living you are doomed for failure.
    Frederick Douglas may have sought to “…save black men’s bodies and white men’s souls” but Christ gave his life for all men’s souls so that whosoever believed in him should not perish but have life everlasting.
    The best liberation theology can hope for is a community where peace and love are temporary and tenuous. Citizens of this community may look and act in wonderful ways but on the inside are just as dark and evil as they always were.
    Regeneration, redemption and reconciliation through the grace of God and faith in Christ makes us citizens of a heavenly Kingdom, here and now on earth and in the great kingdom to come were God will dwell in the presence of His people.
    Let us then seek, not so much to be downwardly mobile, but to be upwardly mobile. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you”. Mt.6:33

    • Bill Britton says:

      Thanks Jim. I appreciate the time you put into your answer, and I know what you’re talking about. (And you answer illustrates why I wanted to solicit your opinion in this endeavor.) The only thing that I think you’re saying that I would contest is the idea that we ought to choose between the “gospel” and the “social gospel.” (Even making such a distinction prejudices the discussion.) I don’t see that distinction in Scripture. I’m not sure if MLK managed to do both, but his practice of what I would call social justice is something the faith community can definitely learn from. No?

      • Jim says:


        Before answering your question, whether the faith community can learn from M.L.K.’s social justice model, I will need your definition of “faith community”.


        • Bill Britton says:

          Well, for starters, how about Evangelicals? (I know the liberal church is more open to King.) Wouldn’t Evangelicals have more credibility if their churches (our churches) cared more about the lives and troubles of others, and not just their souls? Wouldn’t believing Christians have vibrant lives of faith if working for justice for others was partly how they saw a life of service for God? partly how they shared the gospel? party how they demonstrated the grace and love of God towards needy (and sinful) people?

  3. sjmunson says:

    Thanks, Bill. Good stuff. A couple other figures highly influential but often overlooked in the development of the theory of passive resistance are surprising: poet Percy Shelley, whose “Masque of Anarchy” (1819) is just as powerful today, and Leo Tolstoy, whose book “The Kingdom of God Is within You” deeply impacted the course of Gandhi’s life (the two even had a brief but fascinating correspondence). Both worth a read. Keep up the good work and God bless.

    • Bill Britton says:

      Hey Steve, thanks for the feedback and the other sources to check. When it comes to non-violence, there is certainly a deep well of sources, and I think, some strange bedfellows. I’m sure I’ll have more to write on this topic later. (BTW, love Tolstoy.)

  4. Bill Britton says:

    (I posted this reply to me from Jim because we couldn’t get his post to show up on the blog.)

    Bill, Thanks for narrowing the field for me. If we are talking about evangelicals, then I think we are on the same page. Much of American Evangelicalism seems to emphasize the conversion experience and they neglect stressing the Christ like life that is a result of regeneration.

    I’m not sure if it was Ernie or John Reisinger who penned the term “drain pipe religion” but it is unfortunately an apt moniker. Learn the four spiritual laws, ask Jesus into your heart and you are saved. Ostensibly the Holy Spirit has entered you and sadly just as fast as water runs through a drainpipe He leaves.

    John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary used to ask his students what they were saved from. Evangelicals might answer that question by saying they have been saved from the torments of hell. Murray and other Reformed theologians would agree, you have been saved from the wrath of God and also you have been saved FROM the bondage of sin. Saved in order TO live holy lives which glorify God.

    Without a profound understanding of our own sin and a profound repentance for that sin, there is no profound appreciation of salvation. If a person is grateful to God for his salvation the result of that salvation will be seen in a Spirit led life and justice will be part of that life.

    One of God’s essential attributes is His being “JUST”. If Jesus is the exact representation of the Father and we are to be images or reflections of Christ to a lost world, then we must necessarily be just also. It should go without saying that a Christian must be just.

    Mic_6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

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