Twice a year I will write an extended four-part (“scholarly-lite”) reflection on the intersection between theology and another topic. This essay series represents an accumulation of theological reflection, reading, lecturing, and public presentations on the post-1965 Martin Luther King, Jr. This four part series is not a biography, apology, or polemic. Nor is this an exhaustive treatment of King. This essay series offers us a chance to (1) dig deeper than mainstream (coopted) presentations of King, (2) introduce or present a small portion of African American cultural production, (3) think about importance/challenge of prophetic utterance in the midst of status quos of idolatry and injustice, and (4) think about religion and theology in a way that differs from mainstream western epistemology.
This series uses King’s words as a jumping-off point. Again, this is not an exhaustive treatment of King. In Part I., we were introduced to a few concepts behind Black Prophetic Imagination. Now, we will look at God-consciousness.
This sermon is a favorite of mine, and I typically have my students listen to this, King sermonizes that the man was foolish because he let his means outpace his ends, because he forgot about his dependence on others, and he forgot about his dependence on God.
Generic and Specific
Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool, August 27, 1967
(Please listen to 17:00-23:00 at least)
After listening to this snippet, I would like to make three points:
1) God was not real to King because of a theoretical exercise, or even what we might call a “conversion experience”–that is, moving from unbelief to belief. Even with theory and conversion, God can still be unreal to us. Theory may help us think about God and give us insight into how our thoughts about God really shape our lives, but that doesn’t mean that God is real to us. We may be converted from unbelief to belief, but that doesn’t mean that God is real. We may be so caught up in the conversion experience that we forget to pursue what the conversion points us toward. And so we mistake the conversion for God. The conversion becomes real, but God is not.
So how did God become real to King?
God became real to King after his seminary and scholarly training had failed, and after he could no longer rely on his parents’ faith or even his calling as a minister of the gospel. King said that he had to call on the one his Daddy told him about, about a God that can make a way out of no way. Making a way out of no way is a colloquialism often spoken in many black churches. That term “make a way out of no way” tells us much. First, there is a reality called “no way.” The “no way” is the status quo. The status quo is the man who called King a nigger and threatened his life. This is the “no way.” And this “no way” is real. There appears to be no options when there is no other way. But God is identified as the one who can make a way even if there is no way to be made. In other words, the powers that be do not have the last word.
But arriving to this God-consciousness takes place by admitting that “no way” is real. If “no way” is false or unreal, then the God who makes a way out of no way is simply a nice cliché. We are a people who can be very conscious of clichés, but not of God.
2) King is very aware of the reality of suffering and death from a deeply experiential perspective. But it is important, again, to not completely racialize this experience. Doing so, I contend, robs this moment as a generically human moment. Paradoxically, this is a human moment and also a particularly Southern Black moment. And it is both the generic and particular that make the moment profound.
King is not simply anguishing over white racism; he is frustrated over the absurdity of life and petty hatred of human beings in general. He is worried about losing his wife and daughter, or his wife and daughter losing him–“wife” and “daughter” are not terms bound to race. In his own words, he said he was trying to give “theological and philosophical reasons for the existence and reality of sin and evil.” Again, notice the categories he uses are normative… “sin and evil…” not “racism.” His prayer is that he is trying to do what is right, and that he thinks the cause is right…
In this moment, King’s consciousness of God is united to the universal and the particular, the generic and the specific, the transcendent and the immanent, time and space. King’s God-consciousness comes from the extrabiblical oral history of his ancestors (“God can make a way out of no way”) and from an ancient Christian community (“Lo, I’ll be with you even to the end of the age.”). In order to know God for himself, King still had to traverse his physical and spiritual ancestry. But he also needed to “know God for himself.” He needed personal and communal reasons to believe. He wrestled with immanent and transcendent realities.
And in order to continue to do justice, King needed to be rooted in something beyond justice, but God had to speak directly to the reality of suffering and death.
And if God has nothing to say in the face of suffering and death–white racism included–then God has no place for King. But notice the mundane place of this moment. Again, this moment discloses that religion is not simply transcendental, but negotiates the transcendent and the immanent. King is having a cup of coffee; he is not in a religious space. He is at home. The experience shatters the division between sacred and profane, not simply because God was located at home instead of a religious setting, but also because the challenges of suffering, death, and evil are present whether one is in a religious or secular setting. For King and for his community, the distinction between sacred and secular never applied. You could be killed at home like Medgar Evers or at church like those little girls in Birmingham AL.
3) Notice the call and response of that King elicits from the audience. The sermon is a moment of performance, and I do not mean this as a pejorative statement as if King is false and manipulating the argument or crowd. Rather, I follow performance theory here and simply observe: the sermon is both entertainment, in that it arrests our attention. And the sermon is efficacious in that it moves people to action and causes them to re-imagine the world. Black prophetic preaching is an artful performance between preacher and congregation; it seeks to arrest the attention of all so that one can be placed in connection with God and the demands of justice, mercy, and love. And it seeks to mobilize the listener and participants into critical reflection and action. This sermon loses is force without the back and forth, the push and pull.
King’s sermon reveals the communal side to his God-consciousness. Clearly, with the reference to Jesus’ words in Matthew “Lo, I will be with you to end of the age” show that King is steeped in a Biblical tradition. But the Bible is not an artifact of the past and the words are not trapped in the past. They are reinterpreted and re-purposed for such a time as King’s. The community understands this as well. The biblical text is not infallible or inerrant, the text is reliable and exists in playful tension with the spoken word. In a world where you cannot expect much from the powers that be, what one desires is reliability, not infallibility and inerrancy. After all, it is the status quo that claims to be infallible and inerrant; and so, from the view of the underside, infallibility and inerrancy can appear to be quite unreliable.
(Certainly not all black Christians share this sensibility because black folk in general are not monolithic, but I arose from a community that had this relationship to the biblical text. James Cone talks about this as well.)
So the text is reliable and God is reliable, and King drew strength from his community, the Bible, and a God who is not confined to the status quo.
Next week, I’ll give a brief overview to the first mainstay of prophetic speech-acts: Critique of the Status Quo.
(Full disclosure: I received my PhD by doing an interdisciplinary dissertation that explored the relationship between performance [theory] and theologies of liberation and resistance.)
© 2016 M. J. Sales