A Heroic King
“That's what concerns me about the Martin Luther King elevation. The man denied the authority of scripture, denied the Trinity, denied the deity of Jesus Christ, denied the gospel, and lived an immoral life. How does he become heroic?” – John MacArthur
“How did he become heroic?”
In some recent articles addressing "social justice," John MacArthur has addressed a number of his concerns about the recent interest in racial reconciliation and issues of injustice. In discussing these injustices, he has described receiving a taste of the daily oppression black people faced:
“I got a small taste of what it felt like to be bullied and discriminated against in the American South in the 1960s... During one of those trips, as we drove down a dirt road, a local sheriff—an openly bigoted character straight out of In the Heat of the Night—took me into custody, held me in his jail, and accused me of disturbing the peace. He also confiscated (and kept) all my money. He ultimately released me without filing charges. I suppose he considered the money he took from me an adequate fine for doing something he disapproved of.
In those days any appeal to higher authorities would have been fruitless and possibly counterproductive. All I could do was try not to antagonize him further.”
This experience and subsequent dismissal is saddening and presents a way to evaluate his question about Dr. Martin Luther King. One can start by saying that this stuff still happens today in 2018. MacArthur states he got a “small taste of it” as if it exists only in the past. Still, he acknowledges by saying his experience was minor that the treatment black communities faced—which cops turned a blind eye to and Dr. King stood against—was substantially worse. So how is he able to ask this question of Dr. King?
“How does he become heroic?”
To compound the evaluation of past events, Phil Johnson (executive director of MacArthur's Grace for You ministry) has stated that evangelical leaders like MacArthur “practiced real fellowship” and “preached the gospel in contrast to the angry civil rights activists.” Taken in context, in spite of MacArthur being aware of the injustices faced by black communities, Johnson believes he chose "real fellowship" through inaction instead of fighting injustice he knew brothers and sisters in Christ faced on a daily basis. Do you know who did love his neighbor enough to get involved? The (questionably) "heroic" Dr. King!
To spend a night in jail and have your money taken is honestly less than a small taste of the injustice black people faced in this time period. It’s more like a passing whiff of it. In that same era, people had their houses bombed and peaceful protest were sprayed with water hydrant hoses. They were spat on and some were lynched. One must ask if these individuals don't fit the category "of whom the world was not worthy" (Heb. 11:36-38). But MacArthur asks how Dr. King became heroic.
A night in jail would have been a pleasant afternoon or drive out in the country. For others, Jim Crow was the constant reality that greeted them every morning and tucked them into bed at night. Subpar education was a real thing. You'd be murdered if you looked at the wrong white person the wrong way or offend a white lady only to have society say you deserved it! How is preaching the gospel "pract[ing] real fellowship" when you know your brothers in Christ are experiencing this and legally protesting for equality without you? Wouldn’t a logical person think, “the people doing the oppression need to be convicted of the law and need to hear the gospel?” When did “real fellowship” (the description from Phil Johnson) become “stand on sidelines and ignore injustice because God is sovereign?” (The answer is throughout American slavery.)
This is not Sola Scriptura, this is "kinda, sorta, sometime" scriptura. One specific scripture comes to mind as I think about the notion that a person can be aware of the injustices faced by People of Color without understanding why Dr. King is viewed as heroic and affirming some concept of “real brotherhood” which does not get involved:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:12-13)
Say what you will about Dr. King’s theology and place in the history of Christianity, the notion that one cannot grasp why he is viewed as heroic is asinine. He was willing to lay down his life fighting for justice towards Hispanics, Asians, Black people, women, white peoples, and anyone to be honest. And he lost his life fighting for that.
“How does he become heroic?”
Maybe the question really is all about Dr. King as a Christian figure. That is precisely what MacArthur's context seems to insinuate when listing grievances. Perhaps the statement is solely critical of Dr. Martin King's beliefs in college before he came back to be assistant pastor at his father’s biblically sound church. Perhaps it is referencing the immoral life choices depicted in historical FBI files—the same FBI whose job was to tarnish him in the public's opinion (and we all know cops/feds are always honest and just to black people). I will not defend his writings, but state that many people are regarded as heroic by Christians in which nothing has to do with their faith. We have always held people that impacted our nation's history in high regard. We study and learn how George Washington and others bravely and heroically stood up and fought for independence. Many of them held theologies that would be equally criticized. Further, we even have Christians today arguing against the removal of statues dedicated to the losers of the Civil War because of their perceived impact on society and culture.
Using theological jargon from the Reformed tradition, we acknowledge "common grace" in all people. Thus anybody is capable of performing a deed or being used by the sovereign God to accomplish a good deed. Refusing to recognize how a man may be viewed as heroic for playing a monumental role in ending Jim Crow and opposing racism is mind-boggling.
But let's assume that Dr. King is worse than theologically confused. If Dr. King was viewed as this vile a heretic, then why does MacArthur regularly reference going to the place of his death whenever he talks about race issues? (Link 1, Link 2 around two-minute mark, Link 3 around three and half minute mark). Was visiting the site of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King as a tourist designation or a photo opportunity the equivalent of slowing down on the freeway to glance at a horrific accident? It may sound mean but it seems to be the logical assessment when we see an inability (or refusal) to see why he is a heroic figure. We have to ask this question when his position is "clarified" by an executive of Grace to You only to describe marchers as “angry civil right activist.” Perhaps MacArthur's own understanding of "social justice" provides an answer to this problem:
“But social justice means social equity, making sure everybody gets the social equity. That’s never going to happen in a fallen world, in the best of circumstances. But that is not the church’s concern.”
Should the church not feed the poor, offer shelter, assist with funding for the homeless, or have concern that leads to action for the fatherless, etc.? How can a faithful Christian not view being “salt & light to the world” as a call to have the church at a minimum have a concern for societal ills that face the community?
"Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause." (Isaiah 1:16-17)
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 5:13-16)
Separating the call for Christian holiness from a concern about the helpless and oppressed is unbiblical. Truth is, the church will never feed all the starving people, the church will never end all injustice, but the notion that it should not be a concern of the church is simply unsound. The church will never convert every person that hears the gospel, but that does not hinder or contradict the command to preach the good news.
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger ... and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" (Matthew 23:2-4, 23-25)
I am no Dr. Martin Luther King apologist. I will not defend claims against him. But the notion that a person is befuddled about why he is viewed as heroic is laughable. Faithful Christians like John Perkins and others stood with Dr. King because his call for justice was the right thing to do. Before we dismiss his heroic bravery, we should ask where—really—the faithful people were located? Behind a pulpit speaking words or in the marches living out their words?
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? (James 2:14-16)