Being in Year 4 of Education for Ministry, I am in the midst of reading short snippets about the lives and introspection of philosphers and theologians of mostly the 18th-20th century. Some of the material doesn't feel like enough for me, and so I have gone back to my old college textbooks on philosophy to find other writings to help fill in gaps. Yes, I do have my textbook still from my senior-level philosophy class at the University of Missouri. For reasons that I can't explain now, I remembered thinking that I wanted to hold on to the book because I thought it might be useful in the future. How prophetic, right?
When I opened the book, what fell out were the photocopies of Jesus' sermon on the mount from Matthew's gospel and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. The assignment had been to do a comparison of the two texts and discuss them in class. I never spoke in that class. Instead, I sat on the back row trying as best as I could to make sense of Satre and Kant and taking in the existential angst of the philosophy majors on the front row. But then we had this assignment. And as I read the two pieces, I was fascinated by the way King really had used the rhetorical style of the man he called "Savior" to bring the basic understanding of the Gospel message to a practical, and important, political and cultural point.
As always, I sat on the back row in that class, figuring I would just stay mum and let the budding philosophers give us all the meaning of these two speeches. But I was stunned and shocked when one of them, the guy with the scruffy beard and long hair and pasty white skin, opined that there was no comparison between the two.
My hand shot up, and the professor looked like he'd been zapped by an electric shock.
"Yes?" he called on me to speak. And spoke I did!
"Oh, there is sooo much here!" And I rattled off all the rhetorical points that seemed to line up with each other, the repetition of the phrase "I have a dream" and "Blessed are the fill-in-the-blanks." And, looking at those on the front row, I noted, "Dr. King was a preacher. Of course, he would have known this stuff and been influenced by it!"
I find very often that the "Reverend" part of Dr. King's title is often overlooked. As we come to have the annual celebration of a man noted for his impassioned speeches and crusades for civil rights for African Americans, there seems to be a lack of appreciation for where that passion was grounded. Rev. Dr. King was about truly living the values of Christianity, and it was his Christianity that guided him to the place of knowing that his efforts were absolutely right, just, fair and of God. Why then are people so reluctant to make that part of his title?
It seems to stem from the idea that someone like a King and the ideas that he advocated transcend all labels and markers that set him apart from other religions. In fact, the Rev. Dr. King's ethic of non-violence was learned from one of his top assistants in the civil rights struggle, a gay man named Bayard Rustin, who spent time in India learning from the master, Mahatmas Gandhi. So, yes, King was influenced by practices outside of Christianity and by Rustin who, at that time, was reviled by most in the civil rights struggle as a "pervert" because of his homosexuality. Rustin may have kept a low-profile, but his savvy helped King lead.
The fact that King kept Rustin as an advisor and was willing to learn from a Gandhi, shows him to be a broadminded person. And being broadminded is not contradictory to being Christian. In fact, Christians should strive to be open-minded and curious and willing to learn from what others can teach them. That is part of being able to see God in action in the world today.