Every year we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. – one of the greatest leaders in American history – for his role in the civil rights movement. As a young African American woman, I admire him greatly and not just for his social activism, but also for how he used religion to advocate for peace, especially during a time when it would have been easy to forsake God altogether.
I recently spoke with Sarah Azaransky, author of This Worldwide Struggle: Religion and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement and assistant professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. We discussed how Dr. King used religion as a platform to transform the American social landscape and how he relied on different religious teachings to build a worldwide connection among people of different backgrounds.
I consider myself a devout Catholic – one who prays frequently, attends mass every Sunday and believes that yes, there is life after death. I understand religion, especially the Catholic Church, with its misdeeds and missteps, can alienate even the most faithful followers. However, I also believe part of what makes religion – not just Catholicism – worthwhile is that when used to uplift and not condemn, it has the ability to make us treat each other the way we want to be treated – regardless of race or social class.
It’s no secret that Dr. King was inspired by Gandhi as he and his wife, Coretta, traveled to India to study the activist’s philosophy in 1959. Moreover, Dr. King wanted to see how he, a Christian, could learn from other non-Christian traditions.
“It’s what we call inter-religious receptivity,” Sarah tells me. “That takes a special kind of humility and modesty. So when we think about the role religion can play in movements today, it’s about learning critical inter-religious engagement that takes religious differences seriously and helps us learn from other people.”
“It has to involve that critical attention to other religious traditions and for Christians especially, for us to recognize Christian privilege. We’ve been at war for almost 20 years with countries that are majority Muslim. What does that mean?”
When we think about religion working in social movements today, the solution is recognizing traditional Christian-focused power dynamics and uncovering ways to shift the power with non-Christian religions. This was central to Dr. King’s success in intertwining religion with social advocacy.
In his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, King cites Jewish and Christian theologians as a means to fight back against the injustice he faced at the hands of people using religion to propagate separation, not inclusion. He says:
“Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an ‘I it’ relationship for an ‘I thou’ relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation.”
Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.”
“In this moment, he’s using the very best of what he knows and showing it in practice by willing to be imprisoned and saying ‘you clergy, you white Americans, you claim to have the authority of the law and the authority of religious traditions, and I’m telling you that not only do I know them as well as you do but more importantly, they are my traditions too, and I understand them better than you do because I am showing you how they work,’” Sarah says.
“The Letter From a Birmingham Jail is the perfect example of his career, showing Americans that segregation is not only unconstitutional but morally wrong as well,” she adds.
In light of years-long sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, I question how people asserting so-called Christian beliefs can commit vile acts, while also claiming to practice His teachings. I understand that humankind is not without sin or fault, but using God as a means to justify despicable behavior will forever be one of the greatest tragedies of the Church. However, the same juxtaposition occurred with slavery and the civil rights movement, where traditional religion was used to justify inequality.
And as more and more people leave behind religion altogether, the question becomes, at what point do we know when to claim the teachings within the tradition versus when to leave the tradition. But there’s another option, one Dr. King chose, and that’s making new traditions so religion can stake its claim as a healer and unifier because, as Dr. King says in a 1959 speech, the “worldwide struggle” doesn’t apply to one group of people.
“And in a real sense what we are trying to do in the South and in the United States is a part of this worldwide struggle for freedom and human dignity. Our struggle is not an isolated struggle; it is not a detached struggle, but it is a part of 1959 the worldwide revolution for freedom and justice.”
“We are not sitting here detached, as I said, but we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. So we are concerned about what is happening in Africa and what is happening in Asia because we are a part of this whole movement.”
“And we want Mr. Mboya to know, as he prepares to go back to Africa, that we go back with him in spirit and with our moral support and even with our financial support. Certainly injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And so long as problems exist in Africa, or in Asia, or in any section of the United States, we must be concerned about it.”
Then and now, Jesus would agree.
Cover image by George Conklin