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Faith leaders reflect on Martin Luther King Jr.'s religious legacy

POSTED: April 3, 2018 9:49 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Pastor France A. Davis poses for a portrait at Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. Davis knew Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and draws inspiration from his work.

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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is a silent participant in every meeting held in Calvary Baptist Church's conference room. He stares down at those gathered from three of the room's four walls.

The Rev. France Davis, Calvary's longtime pastor, chose this repetitive decor, in part, to honor the Rev. King's role in his life. His ministry career, which spans more than four decades, grew out of his experiences fighting for a better world alongside the Rev. King.

"That's what I've been doing all my life: trying to change laws, to make sure all people are treated equally," the Rev. Davis said.

But the portraits and pictures of the pastor and civil rights leader in the conference room don't just acknowledge the past. They remind church members to dream big dreams for the future, presenting the Rev. King as a symbol of what's possible when faith is put into action.

"He's an example of how to bring about positive change," the Rev. Davis said.

It's not just religious Americans who see the Rev. King this way. Fifty years after his assassination on April 4, 1968, he's hailed as an American hero, held up as someone whom all political activists should emulate.

The Rev. King's broad appeal sometimes troubles the faith leaders who knew him and continue to draw inspiration from him. They see his quotes used to support secular political goals or hear his voice during a truck commercial and worry Americans are forgetting the deep faith that anchored his activism.

"It's legitimate to quote him in the most general of ways, but I don't think we should forget that he was an example of religious faith at its best," said Rabbi Barry Schwartz, author of "Path of Prophets: The Ethics-Driven Life," which was published on March 1.

The Rev. King brought the Bible alive for participants in the civil rights movement, never ceasing to be a pastor even as he took on other roles, the Rev. Davis said.

"He was trying to get people to put feet to their beliefs, to make their beliefs practical in terms of the way they went about their daily lives," he said.

The social gospel

The Rev. Davis first heard about the Rev. King's work when he was 15 or 16. He knew Christians were called to serve their neighbors, but his energy was lacking.

"I understood that to be the need, but I didn't feel empowered to do it," said the Rev. Davis, who grew up in rural Georgia.

The Rev. King's impassioned speeches brought about a change of heart. The Rev. Davis began to see his belief in God as a reason to take action, not just to pray and sit in church on Sunday.

"They were inspirational in every way. They caused those who heard them, me included, to want to act," the Rev. Davis said.

The Rev. King wasn't preaching something new. He was continuing the work of others who'd emphasized the social gospel, or the belief that people of faith should try to build a more just society, not just save people's souls, said Clayborne Carson, founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

"The social gospel really had its roots in the United States … in the late 19th and early 20th century," he said.

Members of the early social gospel movement sought to protect workers during the rapid industrialization of the U.S. They fought for better working conditions and fair pay, turning to the Bible for spiritual nourishment and the motivation to act.

The Rev. King carried the spirit of this activism into the civil rights movement, presenting the fight for racial equality as a deeply spiritual pursuit. He faced pushback for this approach, including from within the National Baptist Convention, which his grandfather helped found, Carson said.

"The elected leader of the National Baptist Convention opposed King and felt that the role of the pastor is to try to achieve salvation for members of the congregation and that the church shouldn't really be focused on social issues," he said.

However, many others, including Jews and other non-Christians, were receptive to his message. The Rev. King energized old teachings, inspiring believers like the Rev. Davis to live out their faith in new ways.

For some Jewish leaders, this meant proclaiming God's calls for justice all the way to jail, said Rabbi Schwartz, who leads Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, New Jersey. His own rabbi was one of 16 arrested in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964 after joining the Rev. King there to rally for racial equality.

"There was a history of activism" in many religious traditions, he said. "But King was the singular figure who could galvanize their social-justice work."

Biblical engagement

The Rev. King drew on the Old and New Testaments in his sermons and public addresses, which helped him unite Jews and Christians, said Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College.

"If you look at his major speeches, he quotes (the prophet) Amos more often than Jesus," she said.

He learned this approach in the black churches of his childhood, she added. African-Americans took comfort in and felt empowered by the Old Testament stories of prophets seeking justice and the Israelites escaping slavery in Egypt.

Heschel's father, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, also influenced the Rev. King's biblical engagement. The Rev. King carried a copy of Rabbi Heschel's book, "The Prophets," in his pocket during marches, and it gave him strength to bring a prophetic voice to racial conflict.

"The prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible," Rabbi Heschel wrote. "To a person endowed with prophetic sight, everyone else appears blind."

The Rev. King wed the prophets' radical acts of service with Jesus Christ's teachings in the New Testament, the Rev. Davis said.

"His message was clearly one about love based on New Testament theology and teachings, but his examples of showing love were from the Old Testament," he said. "He was masterful in weaving the two."

But this mastery often goes unnoticed in contemporary celebrations of the Rev. King, the Rev. Davis added. People are content to applaud his charisma, rather than understand the theological and historical claims anchoring his speeches.

"We gravitate toward the rhythm and the sound as opposed to the message being communicated," he said.

For example, most Americans are familiar with the Rev. King's dreams in his "I have a dream" speech from the March on Washington. He dreams that his children will be judged for their characters, not the color of their skin. He dreams that white children and black children will one day be able to join hands in Alabama.

Fewer people can recall earlier parts of the speech, when the Rev. King recounted unfulfilled promises made to black Americans when the country was founded and assured his followers that "unearned suffering is redemptive."

"With 'I have a dream,' everybody knows the last part of that speech, but earlier is where the meat is," the Rev. Davis said.

To truly understand the Rev. King's revolutionary work, you have to grasp how central the Bible was to his activism, Rabbi Schwartz said.

"He was motivated by general ideas of justice, but, at the same time, he was coming from a Judeo-Christian perspective," he said.

King's religious legacy

Heschel was active in the Jewish community throughout her childhood, attending Hebrew school classes and learning to interpret the Bible. Like the Rev. Davis, she knew what she was supposed to be doing, but she wasn't particularly excited to be doing it.

“I didn’t like Hebrew school. I found the way the Bible was taught to us to be very dull," she said.

The Rev. King's friendship with her father changed everything. He brought the words of the biblical prophets alive, showing Heschel the value of learning them.

“King changed my life and gave me a love of the Hebrew Bible and a love of the prophets," she said, crediting the Rev. King with inspiring her to become a professor of religion.

The Rev. Davis offered similar praise, explaining that he's modeled his ministry after the Rev. King's work. Each week in his sermon at Calvary Baptist, he urges his congregation to go out into the world and improve it. He preaches on the importance of serving others and tries to lead by example, promoting policies like fair housing and Medicaid expansion.

"I'm one of his disciples in that sense," he said.

When the Rev. Davis learned of the Rev. King's assassination, he knew there were plenty of people like himself to continue proclaiming the Rev. King's prophetic message. However, he worried about the loss of a man who encapsulated the entire struggle for civil rights. The movement would persist in pieces, rather than a unified whole.

"I was concerned that it was piecemeal — one person talking about this and one person talking about that," the Rev. Davis said.

Reflecting on the state of faith-based activism today, the Rev. Davis said he's come to appreciate this piecemeal approach. He likes that some houses of worship specialize in feeding the hungry while others expertly lobby legislators for fairer policies.

The Rev. King's legacy is alive in many places at once, he said.

"When (this activism) was done by one person, it was localized to a particular area. … With a number of different people, it can be in several places," he said.

The Rev. Davis wants visitors to know that Calvary Baptist is one of those places, so he put a small model of the Rev. King's Washington, D.C., memorial on the church's reception desk. Arms crossed, the miniature Rev. King stares sternly out at new arrivals from under a large green plant.

"With Dr. King, you knew you were in the presence of greatness," the Rev. Davis said.
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