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[Chalice] The Non-Christian Sources [Chalice]
of Martin Luther King's Thought

Presented January 13, 2002, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

Everybody knows that Martin Luther King was a Southern Baptist minister and that his life, thoughts, and ideas were all pervaded with his Christianity. But what about the non- or beyond- Christianity influences upon him and his thinking? If you go to the writings of MLK wanting him to have influences upon his thought that are more important than Christianity, you are going to be disappointed. However, there are several non-Christian sources of his thinking that are very essential to him, and of them all the most important, of course, is his relation to the life and the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. This has to be considered as a special case of MLK's non-Christian influences. Understanding the significance of Gandhi for MLK's life and for the Civil Rights Movement is not as simple as it first appears.

Most of MLK non-Christian sources are intellectual and philosophical ones. I do not know why MLK doesn't get recognized as a philosopher and intellectual. It seems that if you write a few obscure books that very few people actually read on philosophical subjects, then that establishes you as an intellectual. However, if you can take philosophical and intellectual ideas and change society with them, that somehow undercuts your claim to be an intellectual. However this may be, many of MLK's non-Christian sources are intellectual and philosophical ones.

One way in which he condemns segregation, for example, is that it treats humans as means rather than as ends, and he states that this violates Kant's formulation of the categorical imperative. He also says that segregation and racism establish an I-It relationship where an I-You relationship should be. He thereby draws on the thought of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber for political critique. He also argues against the right-wing reading of the German philosopher Hegel, the interpretation that states: Change and progress are inevitable so we simply need to have patience and wait because progress will necessarily happen of its own accord. Social change, he said, does not simply roll in on the wheels of inevitability. We have to make it happen, thereby arguing against his own right-wing Hegelians, as Marx, a century earlier, did his.

Martin Luther King quotes over and over again this line from Victor Hugo: "Nothing is more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come." He also frequently quotes Thomas Carlyle: "No lie can live forever" and William Cullen Bryant: "Truth Crushed to earth will rise again." With his background in 19th and 20th century philosophy and theology, he used the resources of phenomenology and existentialism to describe to white America what it was like to live as a Negro in the United States. Just as the philosopher Vaclav Havel used the close description of lived experience that is phenomenological existentialism to describe how dehumanizing it was to live under communist rule, the philosopher Martin Luther King understood that this branch of 20th century philosophy could be put to effective political work. So he described what it felt like when-in his famous letter from the Birmingham Jail-"you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading 'white' and 'colored'; when your first name becomes nigger and your middle name become boy (however old you are); when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments, when you are fighting always a degenerating sense of nobody-ness."

Because Martin Luther King was an intellectual and relied upon intellectual sources, he could use the sociologist Max Weber to argue that American society while making great advances in civilization was not progressing in terms of its culture. He understood that the Civil Rights Movement in America was part and parcel of a global struggle on the part of non-white people to free themselves from the domination of white, western, imperialistic civilization.

Martin Luther King's writings give plenty of evidence that he enjoyed a rich intellectual life and drew upon many sources beyond the Christianity into which he was born. But of all of them, there is no doubt that the most important source beyond Christianity for his thought and for his life was the teaching of Mohandas Gandhi. In his speeches and his writings, King mentions Gandhi more often than any other historical person except Jesus. He explained that his first involvement with the struggle for civil rights began in 1954 when the Negro community in Montgomery Alabama asked him to represent them in their boycott of the buses. When he was asked to do this he immediately thought of two things: Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount and Gandhi preaching nonviolent resistance. Even in those earliest months of his involvement which of course would last his entire life, he mentioned the name of Gandhi so many times that his friends suggested that he travel to India once the boycott was finished to visit the land of his great mentor in non-violent resistance.

King says that in 1954 he didn't understand how significant Gandhi's teaching of nonviolent resistance was going to become for him personally and for the movement. His growing awareness of this led him eventually to spend one month in 1959 with his wife traveling through India and talking with as many people as he could who knew Gandhi. What most impressed King about his time in India is that the Indian people did not hate the British. The eventual spiritual results of Gandhi's teaching of non-violent resistance were that the Indian people and the British grew closer together as people, respected and like each other more: "It was an marvelous thing to see the amazing results of a nonviolent campaign. The aftermath of hatred and bitterness that usually follows a violent campaign was found nowhere in India. Today a mutual friendship based on complete equality exists between the Indian and British people within the commonwealth. The way to acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But the way of nonviolence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community."

It is widely known that Martin Luther King borrowed the method of nonviolent resistance from Gandhi. This is the way the relation between King and Gandhi is most often understood, that Gandhi gave to King a method of nonviolent protest. Even King himself at one point says quite clearly: "Christ furnished the spirit and motivation {for the Movement} while Gandhi furnished the method." Even though MLK says this himself, explains his debt to Gandhi in this way, I don't think this is an adequate way to explain how important the Hindu saint was to the Baptist minister.

There is no doubt that through the years of his involvement with the Civil Rights Movement King's Christian faith deepened and matured. As his life became more and more about thinking and speaking and acting on behalf of the oppressed and the downtrodden, the life and the person of the suffering Jesus became more and more personal and meaningful for him. So I do think it is clear that his spiritual life became deeper in terms of a deepening Christian and Christ-centered focus. But if try to think about how that happened in his life, what helped that deepening Christian spirituality to grow, then we are brought back once again to the importance of the life and teachings of Gandhi for King.

In an autobiographical essay called "My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence" that King wrote in 1959, he explained that when he began his Christian ministry he said he didn't have much confidence or faith in the power of Christianity to change society. He thought that the "turn your other cheek philosophy" and the "love your enemies philosophy" (i.e., Christian philosophy) was only valid for disputes between individuals and wasn't of much use for social and racial and political hatreds and disputes. But Gandhi taught King the relevance and the meaning of King's own Christian ideas of love and forgiveness. The Hindu saint taught the Christian minister that Christ's philosophy really was the best, the most practical and the most powerful philosophy and that Christ's philosophy of love, forgiveness and nonviolence could actually work. So if King's life involved a deepening of his Christian spirituality and of his understanding of and appreciation for Jesus-as it certainly did-I do not think it is too much to say that the key moment of this was brought about by Gandhi, when the Hindu showed to his Christian brother that there was real power and efficacy to Jesus' teaching and not just idealism and sentimentality. From that moment on, King's commitment to nonviolence was absolute, no matter how things got or no matter how many people told him he was too idealistic or too Christian. He held on to the truth of nonviolence, and as he did so he came to understand God's spirit more and more. And Gandhi was the one, I think, who enabled King to stick with and have confidence in what King saw as his Christian commitment to Jesus' teaching of love and nonviolence.

So I think that we must think the debt that King owes to Gandhi as a spiritual debt, or better, we must think the gift Gandhi gave King as a spiritual gift. This spiritual debt and this spiritual gift goes far beyond King's simple statement: "Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method." Ironically, perhaps, we would be far better off trying to understand Gandhi's spiritual gift and King's spiritual debt through the words of Gandhi himself, when he explained that spiritual people of the world's religion should not wish to convert each other. Rather, he said, a Hindu should wish that a Christian become a better Christian, and a Christian should wish that a Hindu become a better Hindu.

And speaking of spiritual debt, it is a great thing that our country does have a day to remember Martin Luther King; that it has made his birthday a national holiday. But the question of course is: How do we celebrate this day? How best to honor him and perhaps to recognize our spiritual debt to him? That is a very big question we could talk about all morning. Are we really living this day out as a holiday to remember him, our spiritual debt to him, and his to Gandhi? Is this a holiday where blacks and whites reconnect and recommit to greater understanding of and love for one another? Or is this just another holiday and another day off work or off school? What are we trying to accomplish by making this day a holiday, and how could we even begin to think about that without thinking about spirituality and about spiritual debt and spiritual gift?

©2002 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2002. The Non-Christian Sources of Martin Luther King's Thought, /talks/20020113.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

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