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Martin Luther King’s secret religion

Martin Luther King, Jr.

(RNS) — If the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Jewish holiday, this would be second day yontif.

Which leads me to an encounter with one of his sermons – a sermon that I read, over and over again, always at this season.

Many years ago, Dr. King delivered a sermon from the pulpit of Temple Israel in Hollywood, California. In that sermon, he spoke about the need to be creatively maladjusted.

These are his words:

This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists. Our planet teeters on the brink of atomic annihilation; dangerous passions of pride, hatred, and selfishness are enthroned in our lives; truth lies prostrate on the rugged hills of nameless calvaries; and men do reverence before false gods of nationalism and materialism…human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted. (American Sermons: The Pilgrims To Martin Luther King Jr.).

Dr. King once gently chastised child psychologists on their fondness for children being well adjusted.

There are some things in our society to which we should never be adjusted. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence…

 Yesterday would have been Dr. King’s eighty-ninth birthday. He is forever frozen in our memory as the courageous thirty-nine-year-old man he was when his life was so brutally taken — fifty years ago, in April, 1968.

And yet, I imagine him walking to a pulpit, and re-delivering those words, uttered decades ago — and all of us understanding that they are as true today as when they were first spoken

I suggest that we look at Dr. King not only as a social activist — which he was — but as a religious thinker.

I believe, passionately, that religious faith must offer comfort — to those who are ill, torn apart, travelers through the valley of the shadow of death.

But, I have also long believed that the truest meaning of religion is to be creatively maladjusted.

To paraphrase the social critic H. L. Mencken: The role of religion should be to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.

That’s the real meaning of “prophetic Judaism.” As the Christian author Frederick Buechner once said: “There is no evidence whatsoever of a prophet being invited back a second time for dinner.” They were tough customers. They had to be.

The Jewish theologian, social activist and Dr. King’s compatriot, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote: “The prophet is an iconoclast, challenging the apparently holy, revered and awesome. Beliefs cherished as certainties, institutions endowed with supreme sanctity, he exposes as scandalous pretensions.”

Dr. King believed that as well. That was his religion.

The only question is: now that we need him, who will take his place?

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

22 Comments

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  • I like it, Rabbi. King was kind of like all 36 lamed-vavniks all rolled up into one, nu? [See “The Gospel According to the Coem Brothers” by Cathleen Falsani].

  • MLK was A Christian aligned with the Kingdom and not an opposing Christian aligned with the world of man.

  • But he too had his “MeToo” moments:

    i.e. MLK cheated on his wife. An important bit of information when necessarily denouncing politicians and entertainers for doing the same thing. Hoover went overboard in demeaning MLK but there is enough information to conclude that MLK was unfaithful in his marriage. The most damning information:

    “The evidence is quite solid that Martin Luther King, Jr. did cheat on his wife, but the claims that he engaged in orgies or that he had sex with prostitutes, white or otherwise, appear to be totally undocumented at best and complete bunk at worst. Ralph Abernathy, a close personal friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. and King’s successor as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, wrote a tell-all memoir shortly before he died called And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, which was extremely controversial when it came out 1989, because of its discussion of King’s infidelities. According to this page on snopes.com, which quotes extensively from Abernathy’s autobiography, many African-American women found Dr. King extremely attractive, and King was not always successful in warding off extramarital temptation:

    Martin and I were away more often than we were at home; and while this was no excuse for extramarital relations, it was a reason. Some men are better able to bear such deprivations than others, though all of us in SCLC headquarters had our weak moments. We all understood and believed in the biblical prohibition against sex outside of marriage. It was just that he had a particularly difficult time with that temptation. ……….”

    https://www.quora.com/What-evidence-exists-that-Martin-Luther-King-Jr-engaged-in-orgies-with-white-prostitutes-and-other-women

  • ‘But he too had his “MeToo” moments:

    No human is without failure. More important is which side of the fence a person’s allegiance lies… world of man or Kingdom.

  • Well, you’re right Mr. Rational. Of course, you’re always overdosing on attacking all things Christian, but you got more guts than a lot of King’s annual followers do.

    I remember watching Rev. Abernathy getting pilloried by his fellow blacks on the old “Phil Donahue” show. Why attack him? Pillory him? Cut up his emotions on TV with a straight razor? Simple. Truth hurts. So ya gotta shoot the messenger. Ya gotta lynch the Uncle Tom.

    Abernathy believed that if we blacks honestly owned up to the MeToo truth about Dr.MLK Jr, it would (1) deprive that scandal of its power, and also (2) show America that blacks could mentally and spiritually handle this kind of mature looking-in-the-mirror. He was surely right about (1), but TOTALLY wrong about (2), and he went to his grave still battered & bruised.

  • Unfortunately for many a religiously conservative American Christian, what is embraced from the Old Testament is the exclusive reign of Israel in the region while Prophetic Judaism is relegated to that of being a spurned suitor. Perhaps that is because much of religiously conservative American Christianity has, like their predecessors in the pre-revolutionary times of France, Russia, and Spain, has sided with wealth and power. That is done in order to enjoy the privileges that riding in on the coattails of wealth and power grant.

  • It indeed is as many of the playboys are or were married. E.g. Weinstein, Franken, Lauer.

  • Rabbi, I believe a leader has already risen up to inspire us today. His name is the Rev. William J. Barber, II, and he has assumed Dr. King’s mantle by reviving the Poor People’s Campaign. I have heard him in person and he is marshaling people of faith everywhere to stand up to the unholy trinity of racism, poverty and militarism. Everyone can learn more through his organization, Repairers of the Breach, breachrepairers.org.

  • Certainly, Martin Luther King, Jr. [who was named after the revered Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther] along with his contemporaries like Abraham Joshua Heschel and others have done their work as drum majors for social justice. In countless ways their legacies live on. As we approach the final battle of the Conflict of the Ages, one not only of social justice, but for the law of Jehovah God, we do indeed need prophets ‘challenging the apparently holy, revered and awesome; confronting beliefs cherished as certainties, institutions endowed with supreme sanctity, exposing them as scandalous pretensions.” http://bit.ly/17CT1Uh

  • More on angels in your idyllic, mythical heaven and elsewhere:

    AND THE INFAMOUS ANGELIC/SATANIC CONS CONTINUE
    TO WREAK STUPIDITY UPON THE WORLD

    Joe Smith had his Moroni and Satan/Perdition/Lucifer. (As does M. Romney)

    “Latter-day Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah.”

    Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God and of course Satan and his demons.

    Mohammed had his Gabriel (this “tin-kerbell” got around) and of course the
    jinn.

    Jesus
    and his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern
    day demon of the demented. (As do BO and his family)(As do Biden and Ryan)

    The
    Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other “no-namers” to
    do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these “pretty
    wingie/ugly/horn-blowing thingies” to the myth pile. We should do the same
    to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals.
    Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders
    and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

  • Now you shirk responsibility? How does ‘There is only one Kingdom outside this world of exile’. lead to angels?

  • You mean there is another kingdom outside this world other than the Christian heaven? Muslim heaven maybe?

  • Nobody goes to the Christian Heaven. Another fallacy based on tradition. The Kingdom comes to man from out of Heaven. The world will be no more.

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