When we talk about the work of exemplary men and women, we usually focus on their achievements and pay little attention to their theological convictions–as if, somehow, their actions could be divorced from their beliefs. There’s no doubt, though, that the ceaseless labors of many prophetic people are tied to their strong religious convictions, convictions that are not peripheral, but central to their work.
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., illustrates this point. We are well informed about what he accomplished and the world he helped change, but how many of us can explain the theological grounding of his visionary leadership? In the passage below, we discover that, in his struggle for righteousness, King believed in, and relied on, the sustaining and loving power of a personal God:
“…in the past years the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category which I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experience of every day life… In the midst of outer dangers I have felt an inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give. In many instances I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearances of the world there is a benign power. To say God is personal is not to make him an object among other objects or attribute to him the finiteness and limitations of human personality; it is to take what is finest and noblest in our consciousness and affirm its perfect existence in him. It is certainly true that human personality is limited, but personality as such involves no necessary limitations. It simply means self-consciousness and self-direction. So in the truest sense of the word, God is a living God. In him there is feeling and will, responsive to the deepest yearnings of the human heart: thus God both evokes and answers prayers.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” in I Have A Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World, ed. James Melvin Washington, 54-62 (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1986), 61.