Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Theology on Race-Relations in His Sermon “On Being a Good Neighbor”​ or the Parable of the Good Samaritan

Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Preacher

[This article is dedicated to Quincy Bowens, a person of color. He befriended me as a teenager. We became best friends, despite our differences. He was tragically killed in Port Ewen, New York, on my birthday, 28 April 1974. Forty-six years after his death, he is still very much alive in my memory. I also keep his memory alive in discussing racism in my university lectures. Rest in peace, Quincy!]

Why Being a Person Matters

For Martin Luther King, Jr., before a human being becomes a member of any religion, he or she comes into the world as a person. Theologically speaking, every human being is a sacred person, because he or she is made in “the image of God” (cf. Genesis 1:26-27). The ultimate reason a human being should care for another human being, is that he or she is a person and a person matters more than anything in all creation. In the natural (not spiritual) order of things, one person is united to another by virtue of his or her common humanity. A human person matters, is of utmost importance, regardless of his or her religious differences.

In Dr. King’s sermon “On Being a Good Neighbor” or the Parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:25-37), King teaches that the Samaritan, who has no special reason for helping a Jew and almost every racial reason for despising him, is moved by compassion at the suffering of another human being and cares for him. The Samaritan is an example that human life matters, the human person himself or herself, matters, because the Samaritan, a stranger to the wounded man, takes care of him.

Humans Despite Human Differences

For the Samaritan, at the moment of an immediate human need, it does not matter what the wounded man believes, as in differences of creeds; nor does it matter that the man’s faith-community is different from the Samaritan’s, as in differences of religion; nor do ethnic differences, such as the differences between Jews and Samaritans, matter. As Dr. King observes,

“If the Samaritan had considered the wounded man as a Jew first, he would not have stopped [to help him],” for the Jews and the Samaritans had no dealings. He saw him as a human being first, who was a Jew only by accident [i.e., external or outer properties of a human being]. The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and, therefore, brothers.”1

In other words, first or foremost, the Samaritan sees the wounded man as a human being, a person; his race and religion are secondary to his humanity or personhood.

Humans of Different Colors

Color, for example, is secondary to being a human, a person. Let me state the same truth from two different perspectives. The first is negative and the second, positive. Negatively, a person’s humanity cannot be reduced to a color, because a human is, first or foremost, a person, not a color. Positively, while a human being is a color, he or she is much more than that. In other words, there is more to being a person than the color of his or her skin, because he or she is the imago Dei, the “image of God.”

Therefore, while I do see a human being’s color, if I only see that, then I am not viewing him or her as a person, but as a racial classification, category, and, thus, an object or thing. Being the imago Dei, a sacred icon, a person has non-reducible value. That is to say, his or her life cannot be “boiled down” to a single material thing or factor. A person is, then, infinitely more than all racial, religious, ideological and political categories or classifications.

Limited by a Spiritual Myopia

Today, unfortunately, for not a few people, differences in color, race and religion do matter. So, unlike the Samaritan, they refuse to see a different human being as a human, a person, viewing, instead, him or her as racial, ethnic or religious category. In the words of King,

“Too seldom do we see people in their true humanness. A spiritual myopia limits our vision to external accidents. We see men as Jews or Gentiles, Catholics or Protestants, Chinese or American, Negroes or whites. We fail to think of them as fellow human beings made from the same basic stuff as we, molded in the same divine image.”2

For King, such thinking tends to ignore or even reject the universal Christian doctrine that from the very beginning of the human race, God made and continues to make every human being in his “image” and “likeness” (cf. Genesis 1:26-27; James 3:9).

A Critique of the Dehumanizing Forces of Racism

By the Samaritan’s actions, his example, he is immediately aware, knows intuitively, that there is no superior race, rushing to the aid of the Jewish man. The Samaritans accept the divine authority of the Pentateuch, the first Five Books of Moses, learning that every human being is equally human, having the same human nature, being an image-bearer of God (cf. Genesis 1:26-27). No one person, then, is more human and, thus, more valuable in his or her humanity than another.

In his sermon, King also gives a critique of the dehumanizing forces of racism, such as segregation and discrimination, noting that

“If a white man is concerned only about his race, he will casually pass by the Negro who has been robbed of his personhood, stripped of his sense of dignity, and left dying on some wayside road.”3

King appeals not only to the divine law, the law of God in Holy Scripture, to overcome the twin evils of segregation and discrimination, but he also appeals to the natural moral law, a law God implants in human nature, saying,

“A vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws will bring an end to segregated public facilities which are barriers to a truly desegregated society, but it cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride, and irrationality, which are the barriers to a truly integrated society. These dark and demonic responses will be removed only as men are possessed by the invisible, inner law which etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love is mankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation.”4

Summary and Conclusion

As a civil rights activist, Dr. King would definitely affirm that black lives matter! By his life, his example, he often defended that proposition and, ultimately, died for it. But for King, he would add that all black lives matter. He cared about the plight of all his black brothers and sisters. However, as a Minister, using the Bible as the authority for his preaching, King would go even further and say that all human lives are sacred, that they all matter, because all human beings, regardless of their color or race, are made in the “image of God.”

Endnotes

  1. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2010), pp. 24-25.
  2. Ibid., p. 24.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., pp. 29-30.

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