Martin Luther King Jr., Black Lives Matter, & The Church

One of my worst moments in seminary happened when I missed two weeks of Church History class. Why? Because the day I got back to class, I had no idea what we were talking about! My timeline of a historical narrative was fragmented, and without taking that into account, understanding the latter part of history was made far more difficult. To properly understand a historical narrative, it is imperative that we take its entirety into account.

It is my fear that we, as a body of believers, have gravely misunderstood the historical narrative of not only Martin Luther King’s era, but also the current Black Lives Matter movement and our role in properly responding as Christians. Why do I have this fear? Because often, our response to modern riots, protests and civil disturbances has been to isolate the incident instead of taking into account its historical context.[1] This has led to a misinterpretation of modern incidents within our country that entail highly charged racial tensions that further drive and validate division among us.

Let us, as a body of believers, objectively examine what has transpired over our country’s history and how we can better respond to the current climate.

Looking back…

In regard to the Negro-American, our country has a dark history, the consequences of which we are still facing today.[2] To deny the modern-day effects attributed to this dark history is similar to denying modern-day effects Jews still endure from atrocities done by the Nazis. The reality is that we all suffer from consequences of choices made in the past.

In the early stages of our country, the U.S. Constitution regulated laws that devalued the humanity of much of the slave population. For example, at one point, the law denied the full humanity of slaves[3] and restricted anyone from educating slaves.[4] For almost a century, the first fight for slaves in this country was not for freedom; rather, it was a fight to be considered equally human.[5] For generations, the damage these measures caused to slaves and their families far outweighed anything our country had done to right these wrongs.[6]

This is not stated in an attempt to illicit any sort of apology or to demand any type of reparation for descendants of slaves. Rather, this is intended to accentuate that the perception of the Imago Dei[7] in an entire people group—as far as others and even they themselves perceive it—has been damaged. Within the American church, one man sought to champion this fight for humanity and help the country rightfully perceive the devalued Imago Dei in a people group.

In April 1963, amidst his fight for civil rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was imprisoned in Birmingham, Ala. King, being a pastor at the time, did not separate theological aspects of his faith from social issues. In fact, King’s faith and his heart for people are what thrust him into his role as a civil rights leader. His heart from the pulpit and movement was to ultimately see the image of God within a people group—which had been largely disavowed in history—rightly perceived by those both inside and outside the group.

At the time of his arrest, a collective group of prominent, Alabama clergymen published an open letter reprimanding King’s philosophy of peaceful and immediate protesting. They condemned his view of change and his actions as both “unwise and untimely.”[8] However, King was no stranger to staunch opposition, especially from other fellow believers. In King’s response to these clergymen, notice the language King uses,

Beyond this, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. … Just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Graeco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown. … Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.[9]

King called for immediate justice through peaceful demonstrations in this letter, and he received strong opposition even from those within the American church. Historically, we as a convention and body of believers at large have been behind the curve of justice.[10] Oftentimes, we are so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. The reason we can look back on Dr. King and honor his path is that he did not separate earthly race relations from his heavenly theology.

Black Lives Matter

The controversy continues after the death of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, racial division continued in America. Since King’s death, there has not been a central figure within the American church (black or white) possessing a loud enough voice to stand up and continue speaking toward repairing perceptions of the Imago Dei in the descendants of slaves. There have been many who tried, but very few commanded a movement like Dr. King. That has been true until recently.

In 2012, #BlackLivesMatter began in response to the controversial death of Trayvon Martin. The following is taken directly from their website’s “About” page; notice the language this movement uses:

Rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist our dehumanization, #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.… #BlackLivesMatter is working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. We affirm our contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.[11]

In many ways, this is the same language used by Dr. King during the Civil Rights movement. BLM is seeking an immediate change, to affirm the humanity of black people, and to restore the brokenness in many black lives.

So what is the major difference between BLM and Martin Luther King Jr.?

While King operated through the church and uplifted God to restore the Imago Dei during the Civil Rights movement, BLM has little to no church involvement, especially within its leadership roles—a major reason being that several founders and prominent leaders of this movement have deviated from church involvement due to BLM’s stance on homosexuality and women leadership.[12] While their goal is similar to that of King’s during the Civil Rights movement—to restore the misperceived image of God within a people group—they are doing so apart from God Himself. One can almost categorize it as seeking to attain the blessings of God detached from God.

Looking Forward…

This is in no way a critique, defense or advocacy of BLM and past/future actions regarding race relations. It certainly has many short comings, but since its inception, the movement has addressed an important issue within our country.[13] My intention in highlighting BLM is to expose what happens when we as a body of believers fail to properly take up our charge from the Lord.

This is a historical fact: When the church steps back from a role it was designed to fulfill, the world steps in and responds. This is the case with soul care in America, political involvement, and properly addressing racial inequities that began hundreds of years ago. Unfortunately, we as a body of believers have not done our part to continue the work of Dr. King in rightfully repairing the perception of the Imago Dei within a people group. And just as we have seen throughout history, wherever Christians remain silent, others have spoken up. Where the church has dropped the torch, the world has picked it up.

As I write this, I wish I could appeal to a time in our country’s history where we, as an entire church body in America, “got it right.” Unfortunately, as far as the church in America is concerned, I cannot.[14] So, instead of calling you to do what we “used to do,” I must plead with all of my brothers and sisters in the faith to be what the Bible has called us to be. We, as the body of Christ, are to rightfully love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39), to speak up for those who have no voice (Proverbs 31:8), to become a voice amidst a dark world (Matthew 5:14-16), and to show no partiality in our treatment of others (James 2:9). Our failure to collectively do these things at the national level is why we have the problems today that we do.

So who is to blame for all the civil unrest in the current climate? The “worldly people” in the streets fighting to restore that which was broken, or the people in the pew who condemn voices in a cause that they themselves should have upheld?

In a sense, one may be able to conclude that because of the American church’s nearly non-existent voice in this matter, Christians have forced the world to create its own answer that is separate from the teaching of the one true God. If we were the voice God commanded us to be, the world would not need to look for other answers. So the next time we as Christians see people who, apart from God, champion Gospel-centric causes—such as the acknowledgement of the Imago Dei in every individual, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or nationality—may our hearts be broken, and may our hands and feet become like those of Christ Jesus. This was the heartbeat of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and my prayer is that it rings deeply within the hearts of us in the body today.


[1] By this statement, I am not claiming that all riots, protests and civil actions are part of the grand historical narrative referenced in the article. There are certainly random acts of violence and disorderly conduct that have occurred all across our country throughout its history by all people groups.
[2] Systematized inequities, racial biases, etc.
[3] http://aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/three-fifths-compromise
[4] http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/experience/education/docs1.html
[5] https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv
[6] This is not to deny progress that has been made within our country—Brown vs. Board of Education, constitutional amendments, etc.
[7] That is, the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27).
[8] http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-to-martin-luther-king/
[9] http://abacus.bates.edu/admin/offices/dos/mlk/letter.html
[10] It was not until 1995 that our Southern Baptist Convention as a whole acknowledged and publically condemned its historically racial past. www.sbc.net/resolutions/899/resolution-on-racial-reconciliation-on-the-150th-anniversary-of-the-southern-baptist-convention
[11] http://blacklivesmatter.com/about/
[12] For more information, see “Reason No. 3: They’re not trying to mobilize the black church” in this article by CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/29/us/black-lives-matter-blowing-it/
[13] That is, the argument that black lives do hold value and significance, contrary to what our history has communicated. It is not a matter of whether we philosophically believe that all lives are of equal importance; rather, it pertains to the fact that, historically, black lives have been devalued and dehumanized which is a biblically inaccurate notion.
[14] At least in regard to the issue of race.