Erskine examines King's role as religious philosopher

The theologian, wordsmith and philosopher. These are the images that come to mind when Emory professor Noel L. Erskine thinks of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Most Americans identify King as a preacher and social activist but are unaware of his role as a religious philosopher.

"The image of theologian, one who studies God and his relationship to the world, was reserved for white males until King came along," said Erskine, whose new book, King Among the Theologians, is the first in-depth examination of the theology of Martin Luther King Jr.

It's not surprising that scholars have focused on King's political life. King did not practice his theology in the classroom or through scholarly publication -- his religious faith was fulfilled in jail, in the pulpit and on the streets. Rosa Parks and the 1955 Montgomery bus strike catapulted the newly ordained Baptist minister into the civil rights movement at the age of 26, and from that point on there was no looking back. Erskine suspects that given a choice, King still would have selected the harder road. "Like Jesus, he practiced what he taught," said Erskine. "He was willing to march with the poor, to go to jail with them, to be beaten for what he believed."

Inspired by King's leadership, black theologians of the late 1960s began to talk about God and the humanity of the church from a black perspective. "King gave black people the freedom to think their own thoughts, to tell their own stories. King probably would disagree that he started a new theology among blacks, but from his speeches and sermons you can extrapolate the raw material that was used to fashion a movement, a `theology of reconciliation,'" said Erskine, associate professor of theology and ethics at Candler School of Theology.

"King presented a new model of reconciliation that talked about equity, justice and love," said Erskine. "He sought to establish a `beloved community' where people were not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. This vision became the symbol for the movement."

Erskine's book grew out of "The Theology of Martin Luther King Jr.," a class he taught for more than a decade at Emory. For several years the civil rights leader's widow, Coretta Scott King, helped Erskine teach the class and served as a resource to him in writing the book. The author also had access to resources and files at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, as well as the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, an extensive collection of his writings housed at Emory.

Erskine shares another strong tie to the King family. When Bernice, the youngest child of Martin and Coretta King, was at Emory studying for her law and M.Div. degrees, she took Erskine's course on her father's theology. Now associate pastor at Atlanta's Greater Rising Star Baptist Church, Bernice King wrote the foreword to Erskine's book in which she examines her father's philosophy of reconciliation.

Erskine begins his book with an examination of King's theology, which was anchored in the black church tradition. The author then places King "in conversation" with theologians Paul Tillich, Karl Barth and James Cone to demonstrate how they nourished each other's theological thought. The work of womanist theologians Jacquelyn Grant, Katie Geneva Cannon and Dolores Williams provides a critique of King's lack of acknowledgment of black womens' contributions to church and community.

Given King's age at his death - he was 39 when he was assassinated - speculation about how he would have evolved, "what might have been," is inevitable. Would King's vision and message be relevant today? Would he still be striving for his "beloved community?"

Students from the 1980s, particularly those influenced by the black power movement, often found King's non-violent philosophy to be too "soft" and passive. They criticized him for "buying into the American dream." But Erskine has found that in the 1990s, "the mood of the country has changed, and so have students. They're very much into relevance. What does King have to offer me now. Students tend to be very utilitarian in their outlook."

In the last two years of his life, King was no longer the young optimist. According to Erskine, he began to realize how deeply entrenched racism was in the fabric of American life. King began to expound the philosophy of empowerment through economics and encouraged blacks to support black businesses and resources. He began to plan a march of poor people to Washington, D.C.

"King would have taken on capitalism," said Erskine. "He believed in redistribution of world resources and was outraged that America, representing six percent of the world's population, consumed 40 percent of the world's resources. Oh yes, King's philosophy and message would be very relevant today."

-- Nancy Seideman

Erskine will discuss his book at a forum to be held as part of the King holiday observance on Wednesday, Jan. 18, at 11 a.m. in 106 Cannon Chapel. A book signing will follow.