Theology and Ethics of RN and MLK: Final Project

For my class “The Theology and Ethics of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr.” I chose to write a sermon with rationale.  The sermon was written with the intention of preaching it on the Sunday just before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.


25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”  27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” 28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” 29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”  37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

— Luke 10:25-37

Tomorrow is a special day: the day we celebrate the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Pastor King and I go way back to long, long ago when I was in 4th grade.  This is a poster I made back then to celebrate this wonderful man.

And it just so happens that I won a contest with this beautiful masterpiece as you can see here in this news paper clipping that my mother saved.

In all seriousness, if I could spend a day with someone famous who has passed away, Martin Luther King would be very high on my list.  Last semester in seminary, one of the classes that I took was focused on Pastor King and it was wonderful to learn more about this man and his life.  And it was wonderful to learn that in addition to what he had to say about segregation, he had a lot to say to the church.

In the passage I read just a minute ago, a Jewish man is beaten and left for dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  But let’s try to cast this story from our own place in time shall we?  Imagine you are driving along in your shiny car when all the sudden you hear the foreboding “thump, thump, thump” of a flat tire.  You pull over on the side of the road and get out and check the damage.  It’s dark, but you are able tell that sure enough, you have a flat tire.  And then out of the corner of your eye you see two people coming towards you.  They have masks on.  You realize you are in trouble but it’s too late to do anything about it.  When all is said and done, while they haven’t “left you for dead” in a physical sense, they have taken your wallet, your cell phone, your GPS system, and oh yeah…they had a can of tire foam to fix the flat so they your car and took that too.  It seems they were lying in wait…maybe whatever it is you ran over was left there on purpose.  And did I forget to mention you happen to be in Camden, NJ?  They roughed you up a bit so your clothes are disheveled, dirty, and torn.  You have a black eye and a fat lip and a sprained, maybe broken, ankle and the pain causes you to pass out near the graffiti laden wall where you fell.  While you are passed out, a cop passes by but does not stop.  You are written off as a drunken, homeless person.  They see a lot of that around here.  Then a pastor drives by in a large white van filled with kids from the church’s youth group. They are headed to the nearby homeless shelter to help out.  The pastor doesn’t stop though…she has the children to think of after all.  At some point you come to and realize you are in a car.  The seats are vinyl and the material is sagging down from the inside of the roof where it isn’t attached with safety pins.  You see a lit up sign that says “Emergency Room” not too far off but because of the way you were placed in the car you can’t see the driver.  When you get to the ER, you realize the person who has saved you is a young, African-American man who you would have been scared of in different circumstances.  They wheel you off on a gurney for a CAT scan, ankle X-ray, and a few stitches.  You’re back there for a while.  A young man who works for the hospital comes to your bedside to take down some information.  When you tell him your credit cards were stolen, he says, “Oh…don’t worry about that…I called your insurance company since you didn’t have your ID card and the young man who brought you in paid your co-pay.  He just left and said he would be back with some food for you.”  You think of the drooping material in the young man’s car and are very grateful for the way this young man has taken care of you.  When he arrives you eat your food together and he then tells you he is going to take you to a motel around the corner so you can get some rest.  When you get there, he prepays for your stay.  So I ask you, who of these three: the police officer, the pastor, or the young man you would have referred to as a hoodlum in other circumstances?  Yes…you are right…to use Jesus’ words, the one who had mercy on you…the young African-American man.

Pastor King wrote a sermon on this very passage.  He spoke of what I will summarize as “a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds!”[1] to use his words. When the lawyer asks the question, “Who is my neighbor?” (v. 29), as King sees it, Jesus’ answer was essentially, “I do not know his name…he is anyone to whom you are neighborly.”[2]

And this leads to the very thing that Dr. King placed above all else: The Beloved Community.  “A vision for an America and the whole world unencumbered by human categories like race, class, and nationality,” the Beloved Community emphasizes “the sacredness of every person and recognition of the solidarity of the human family.” [3] If this is true, how does that play out in this passage?  In essence, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”[4] If one thread comes undone in my favorite sweater, the whole thing will fall apart sooner or later.  Paul uses the analogy of the human body to communicate the same idea and says, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).  How many of us here have laughed when we stubbed our toe?  Though it is only a bruise most of the time, for that split second it feels like we have been maimed!  So let’s take a minute to think about this…are there people missing from our community?  Are there people who might be “eyes” that would allow this community to see better that do not feel welcome in our midst?  Are there ears waiting to help us better hear the voice of God that do not feel welcome here with us?  Are there mouths that would speak God’s healing and feet that would carry us closer to the Kingdom of God?  Who is missing?  In what ways are we incomplete?  And moreover, when people who don’t look, talk, or act like you or me come here to visit, how would they answer the questions “What kind of people worship here?” and “Who is their God?”[5] Do people from racial-ethnic minority groups feel welcome here?  Do young adults who are single feel welcome here?  Do people who are gay or lesbian feel welcome here?  Do people with physical or mental disabilities feel welcome here? Do all people feel welcome here?

The “stained glass” version of Dr. King that is often presented to us does not often emphasize more than his legacy for the civil rights movement with respect to the de-segregation of America and securing civil rights for African-Americans.  While I do not wish to down play this in any way, it was interesting to learn that King’s vision was much, much broader than civil rights for African-American’s.  As things moved forward, King and many others broadened their emphasis to include impoverished white people since he “…realized that the poor white was exploited just as much as the [African-American].”[6] Eventually he spoke out against the war in Vietnam and drew attention to the fact that the people there, if they were enemies to begin with, must be thought of as “enemy-neighbors.” [7] For King, the Beloved Community is not confined to the United States but in its fullest form is a global community.

So where do we go from here?  Great question.  King wrote an entire book addressing his take on how to move forward.  Much of it is still applicable so if you are interested in reading more I highly recommend it.  I will attempt to summarize in a few sentences what King devoted many pages to.  We must start first by asking ourselves the question “Where are we?”[8] Where are we as individuals?  Families?  A community of faith?  A denomination?  A nation?  After all, how can we know how to move forward if we don’t know our current location?  Our GPS system cannot take us to our Grandmother’s house in Maryland if it does not first establish our current location.  Sure…there has been a significant amount of improvement with respect to racism.  But have you recently asked an African or Hispanic or Latino American (or anyone from a minority group) what it’s like to live in American today?  And regardless of your political affiliations, it is an amazingly wonderful thing that person who is an African-American is currently our President.  But what have you thought of the jokes and snide remarks about the president that were racially based?  Where ever you land on your answer to the question “Where am I” and “Where are we?” it is only after answering these types of questions that we will be able to discern how to move forward.

I humbly submit to you that we still have a lot of work to do and suggest one practical way to get started: talk with each other about it and conversely listen to each other.    I have a feeling that many of us were taught that the easiest way to ensure you don’t offend someone is to just not talk about the topic of race all together.  As I see it, that tactic has only served to widen the divide between those who are a part of the majority group and those who aren’t.  The “good Samaritan” stepped out of his comfort zone to help someone who was alienated and abused.  Are you willing to do the same for those who are alienated and abused by a world who still judges people by the color of their skin instead of the “content of their character”?[9] If someone can tell you are seeking to learn and grow in your understanding of your part the Beloved Community, they will more than likely be honest and forthcoming in their answers.  If not right away, then once you establish a relationship of trust.  I admit this is a terrifying idea.  But just like my painting, when I was learning to draw I had to be willing to make mistakes.  We will not be able to move forward until we are willing to take inventory of where we are now.  And we will not be able to start to figure out where we are now until we start talking with those who are different from us.  But take heart…with God nothing is impossible.


In writing this sermon, it was interesting to keep Dr. King’s theological journey in mind.  Early on, he said, “I was absolutely convinced of the natural goodness of man and the natural power of human reason.”[10] While he eventually realized this was not the case, it seems he never gave up on his vision of the Beloved Community.  While fully “fleshing out” this idea in one sermon was not accomplished above, the hope was to challenge people to assess the community’s unspoken stance on diversity and move forward from where they are towards something that is more inclusive.

The “Good Samaritan” passage was chosen before realizing this was the image Dr. King used in his sermon “On Being a Good Neighbor.”[11] Since many in the privileged group(s) often think they are being neighborly, I sought another route towards a similar idea.  Once King became more “Niebuhrian” in his thinking, he realized that “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged group seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”[12] So while there are individuals who “see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture…as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.” [13] But in a world of people seeking “easy answers and half-baked solutions,”[14] as King saw it, “human progress never rolls on wheels of inevitability” but rather “through the tireless efforts and persistent work of [people] willing to be co-workers with God.”[15] Thus part of the motivation in the organization in this sermon was to reframe what it might look like to be “co-workers with God.”  While King’s emphasis is often on “doing,” since what this congregation is doing is very much linked to what they are thinking, it seems within this context it would be helpful to challenge the listeners to reevaluate their mental framework.

In retelling the story of the Good Samaritan, the goal is to help the congregation find themselves in the story not as the one saving the day, but as the one being saved by someone who does not look like them.  In using King’s idea that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality” and “tied in a single garment of destiny,” the goal is to help people see that “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”[16] The goal is to help people see that “passively accepting an unjust system”[17] means the church “is merely a thermometer that [records] the ideas and principles of popular opinion” instead of “a thermostat that [transforms] the mores of society.”[18]

While Reinhold Niebuhr does concede that “[people] do seem to possess, among moral resources, a sense of obligation toward the good, however they may define it,”[19] he also believes that people “fight for [their] social eminence and increased significance with the same fervor and with the same sense of justification, with which [they] fight for [their] life.”[20] So while the people of my home church are well meaning, the “real evil in the human situation…lies in [humanity’s] unwillingness to recognize and acknowledge the weakness, finiteness and dependence of [their] position, in [their] inclination to grasp after power and security” that “transcend the possibilities of the human existence.”[21] And not just that, but humanity “[pretends] a virtue and knowledge which are beyond the limits of mere creatures.” [22]

In conclusion, while King did not agree with Niebuhr’s theology on all counts, it is evident that he did base much of his ideas on the platform of Niebuhr’s understanding of human nature and sin.  Though there may be some in the congregation that are upset by certain aspects of my sermon, due to the fact that I have a personal relationship with many of these people should help to lessen that possibility.  And hopefully the fact that I also am a middle-class, privileged white person will prevent the message of loving one’s neighbor from getting too mired down with fears of accusations.

[1] Jr. King, Martin Luther, Strength to Love (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 32.

[2] ibid., 22.

[3] C. Douglas Weaver, “The Spirituality of Martin Luther King Jr,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 31, no. 1 (2004): 66.

[4] Jr. King, Martin Luther, Letter from Birmingham City Jail, ed. James M. Washington, A Testament of Hope (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1986), 290.

[5] Ibid., 299.

[6] Jr. King, Martin Luther, Stride toward Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 77.

[7] King, Strength to Love, 45.

[8] Jr. King, Martin Luther, Where Do We Go from Here? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 1.

[9] King, I Have a Dream, 219.

[10] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” Christian Century 77, no. 15 (1960): 439.

[11] King, Strength to Love.

[12] King, Letter from Birmingham City Jail, 292.

[13] Ibid., 292.

[14] King, Strength to Love, 2.

[15] King, Letter from Birmingham City Jail, 296.

[16] Ibid., 290.

[17] King, Strength to Love, 7.

[18] King, Letter from Birmingham City Jail, 300.

[19] Reinhold Niebuhr, Immoral Man and Immoral Society (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 38.

[20] ibid., 42.

[21] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 1 (Loiusville, KY: Westminster John Knox press, 1996), 136.

[22] ibid., 136.


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One Response to “Theology and Ethics of RN and MLK: Final Project”

  1. wernerschwartz Says:

    Reblogged this on wernerschwartz.

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