MLK on Forming a Community in the Way of Love



“We do not preach great things; we live them.”

-- North African Church, circa 200AD


How do we learn to take up our cross? How do we become formed in the way of sacrificial love and forgiveness?


In the early 1960s, when the civil rights movement was finding its stride, child psychologist and educator Kenneth B. Clark sat down to conduct an interview with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It had been a few years since Rosa Parks stayed in her seat, since the Montgomery bus boycott, and since voting rights were granted to African Americans. But the work was far from over. Prejudice found more vicious ways of baring its teeth, and violence had spilled into the streets. White people found ways of keeping Black people out of their neighborhoods through redlining and out of the voting booth through literacy tests. Peaceful protests were met with mass arrests and beatings. Yet Dr. King was leading a movement with a commitment to nonviolence at its core. They would be a “creative minority” just as the early Christians had been, subverting the power of an unjust empire, provoking it to repentance.[i]


In the interview, Clark asked about how the movement had largely retained its commitment to nonviolence. He pressed Dr. King about the relationship between “direct-action nonviolence” as a technique and the love of one’s enemy as an ethic. Dr. King was clear about the link. One was “a method of acting to rectify a social situation that is unjust”; the other accepts nonviolence as “a way of life.”[ii] Clark pressed King about how one could actually love the perpetrators of violence and oppression. Reaching for the language of the New Testament, Dr. King responded that love is not “an affectionate response” but rather the agape, a kind of “understanding, creative redemptive good will for all [people].”


What baffled Clark the most was how this movement with no police force and no uniforms could “maintain this type of discipline, control and dignity” among “people who are voluntarily associated,” despite voices like Malcom X and James Baldwin that contradicted or questioned Dr. King’s nonviolent approach.[iii] This was not an “authoritarian organization.” Clark wanted to know: “How do you account for this . . . beautiful dignity and discipline?”[iv]


King responded, “Well, we do a great deal in terms of teaching both the theoretical aspects of nonviolence as well as the practical application. We even have courses where we go through the experience of being roughed up and this kind of sociodrama has proved very helpful in preparing those who are engaged in demonstrations.” King continued, “I think there is a contagious quality in a movement like this when everybody talks about nonviolence and being faithful to it and being dignified in your resistance. It tends to get over to the larger group because this becomes a part of the vocabulary of the movement.”[v]

In essence, when asked how the movement he was leading was so effectively formed in their “way” and discipled in their values, even at great cost to themselves, Dr. King pointed to teaching, practices, and community apprenticeship...


...Since Dr. King was inspired by how the early church grew under the boot of the Roman Empire, it’s no surprise that the insights we noted from his civil rights movement correspond to what we might say about the church in the 200s in Carthage in particular. We might distill and synthesize the wisdom of both for the church today by saying that formation in a Christlike way also involves teaching, practices, and community apprenticeship.


 

Excerpt from The Resilient Pastor (Baker Books, February 2022).


[i] Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), 12.

[ii] Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope, ed. James Melvin Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 334.

[iii] King, Testament of Hope, 336.

[iv] King, Testament of Hope, 337.

[v] King, Testament of Hope, 337.

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