Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Image of God

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Image of God

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Image of God

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Image of God

Synopsis

Hundreds of volumes have been written on the life and civil-rights work of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. One aspect of King that has received surprisingly little attention, however, is his theology. While it is common knowledge that King emerged from the black church tradition, and many have pointed to his religious lineage as a source for his social activism, few have actually examined the content of his religious beliefs and how they are related to his fight for African American civil rights. Richard Wills concentrates here on one particular piece of King's theology, imago dei - the idea that human beings are made in God's image. Wills begins by tracing the evolution of this idea through the history of Christian thought, showing the intellectual sources King drew on in constructing his own theology. Wills then demonstrates how King employed this idea in his civil rights work. The idea that we are all made in God's image was crucial, Wills shows, to King's understanding ofhuman nature and equality. While King shared with many of his black church forebears the view that humanity's creation by God was a powerful argument for the equality of all people, he also took the concept much further. For King, being made in God's image meant that human beings have not only the right but also the power to reshape society and to build a "Beloved Community" on earth. Wills's thorough reconsideration King's thought makes the case for his importance as a theologian and also for the centrality of imago dei to his theology, and of his theology to the civil-rights movement.

Excerpt

As one reared under the iron heel of Jim Crow, Martin Luther King Jr. often contemplated how American society would look from a sociopolitical perspective minus systemic racial injustice and whether, in fact, this type of sweeping social transformation was indeed plausible. As such, his chief theological inquiry was anthropological in nature, delving into questions as to whether or not humanity could conceivably overcome the stubborn societal realities ushered in by the institution of slavery. If so, how should society then proceed from “what is” to what “ought to be”? King’s brooding inquiry, in essence, explored humanity’s capacity to desire and achieve that which represented the best and broadest interest of the “American dream” for all “God’s children.”

Although he assumed a local social activist stand from Atlanta’s prominent Ebenezer pulpit, “Daddy King” seemingly could not satisfactorily convey the broad theological analysis of the human condition that his son sought, nor could he offer a comprehensive prescription for society’s modification, should such a prospect exist. This, of course, is not to say that King’s early experiences and encounters were negligible. The childhood influences offered by his community, church, and home would, in fact, provide an orientation that was suggestive of the “friendly universe” he later hoped to experience. Equipped with a glimpse of this self-assured possibility and securely positioned in the activist tradition prompted by his father’s indelible impression, King would wrestle with the complexities of . . .

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