What would Martin do?

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, Senior Religion Editor of The Huffington Post asks “Would King have evolved on Gay Rights?”

President Obama’s declaration of support for marriage equality has created an uproar in Christian communities across America, and nowhere more poignantly than in the Black Church where the President is largely admired, but which has traditionally been more socially conservative on issues of sexuality.

Many African American leaders have come out strongly in support of same-sex marriage and the president as a fundamental issue of justice and civil rights. The NAACP made the decision to support marriage equality with the Chairman of the Board of Directors, Roslyn M. Brock, stating: “The mission of the NAACP has always been to ensure the political, social and economic equality of all people. We have and will oppose efforts to codify discrimination into law.”

Likewise, Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, said to his church: The question I believe we should pose to our congregations is, “Should all Americans have the same civil rights?”

Of course, many black Christian leaders are pushing back against the president and his “slap in the face of black clergy” and “declaration of political war against the venerable institution of marriage,” according to Bishop Harry Jackson.

Recently, and not surprisingly, the emotional battle over LGBT rights has focused on America’s moral giant Martin Luther King, Jr. and the question: “What Would Martin Do?”

The article references negative reactions by MLK’s relatives towards same-sex marriage, and also an interesting quote from Ebony magazine (the only public message by MLK on homosexuality, in 1958) and analysis by Professor Michael Long. Then the author continues:

But the question that remains open: had he lived to see this day, would Martin Luther King, Jr’s view of LGBT peoples have ‘evolved’ (to use the president’s word) to full acceptance and in support of same-sex marriage?

Engaging in a persuasive and personal argument, author Paul Brandeis Raushenbush reflects on his great-grandfather, Walter Raushenbush, a prominent preacher of the early 20th century who was closely identified with the Social Gospel, and who influenced MLK. Preacher Raushenbush, while decring slavery and Jim Crow as modern-day sin, still at times “…expressed a world view whose racism makes one cringe in embarrassment.”

Yet there is no question that Rauschenbusch would have supported the black civil rights movement. Walter would have evolved as he came face to face with more African Americans and recognized their struggle for basic dignity and rights as part of the call of the Gospel.

Never a fundamentalist or Biblical literalist, Rauschenbusch understood passages in Scripture that apparently condoned racism or slavery as errant in the extreme, and saw through people who used them for oppressive ends as theologically lazy or willfully mean.

Rauschenbusch’s non-fundamentalist approach to the tradition and the Bible would have allowed him to continue to evolve on the question of race until he had repented (and it does call for repentance) of the racism that dominated his time and place and embraced the civil rights movement as God’s Spirit continuing to move in the world.

King was also not a fundamentalist or Biblical literalist. In King’s time, many black churches, and more white churches, were wary of King’s justice work. Churches and traditions that then (and still today) used a fundamentalist approach to theology and literalist approach to Scripture were deeply suspicious of, if not outright hostile to, King’s civil rights and poverty work.

Yet King’s non-fundamentalist approach to faith and Scripture freed him to hear the Spirit moving in his own time. Transcending centuries of racist teachings to the contrary, he knew that the core of the Gospel was justice, dignity and freedom for all people.

Throughout his life, King expanded his circle of concern to include the civil rights movement, to the Vietnam War, to the plight of poor people of every color. Dr. Wallace Best, a religion and African American studies professor at Princeton put it succinctly: “Fundamentally, King stood for justice, equality and fairness and certainly against any kind of discrimination.”

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