Each of us reads the Bible differently. Countless elements influence our interpretation of our faith and the world around us; our social upbringing, economic class, and gender identity are just a few. There are many perspectives on how to best implement theology in our daily lives, and Martin Luther King, Jr. subscribed to his own. 

King implemented realistic theological ideas into his mission. When we look at his life, we find that it reflects some aspects of liberation theology. Let’s take a look at some of his beliefs, and how he may have encouraged Christians to move toward justice in a divided country.

What is liberation theology? 

For a brief overview, liberation theology arose in the 1960s. It encompasses different movements, like Black, feminist and Latin-American theologies, and its core beliefs insist that:

  1. To rightly understand the Bible, it is not enough to simply support the oppressed; one must be socially and politically active.
  2. It matters not to uphold or defend faith traditions, but rather to seek new understanding toward advancing change.
  3. Ultimately, true hope is only realized through practice and right action. Without activism, hope is an illusion.

The white Christian evangelical tradition is often hesitant toward receiving liberation theology because it necessitates political, social and economic reorganization. The ideal outcome of a practiced theology of liberation results in the Christian community not only caring for the poor, but bringing them to the “fullness of human flourishing,” (Gutiérrez, G. 1971) and, in order to do so, sociopolitical action must occur. 

Many Christians also critique liberation theology for its focus only on the experience of the oppressed rather than the fullness of Christ. Liberation theology insists that we view the Bible strictly through the lens of oppressed persons, and some claim the tradition does not make space for “God being God.”

In its simplest form, though, liberation theology advocates for the sacred and secular working together. It recognizes that oppression is based on selfishness and mistreatment of others; that oppression is the Biblically-predicted outcome of sin. Therefore, by dedicating one’s actions toward creating a better secular world, one brings the sacred into focus.

If Martin Luther King, Jr. read the Bible, he did so through the lens of an oppressed person, with a perspective of liberation theology. King practiced this form of theology by advocating for the marginalized, unwilling to rest until the oppressed were not only accounted for, but justified and made equal. 

How might he encourage us to do the same? 

King might first encourage the church to take social and political action now rather than waiting for the next large-scale injustice. The killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor along with the shooting of Jacob Blake spurred a moment of racial reckoning in the United States that continues to test our country and its white evangelical churches. Sunday services aren’t enough to repair damage done. King might remind church leaders that they are well-positioned to spur civic action Monday through Saturday by providing unbiased education along with community-forward, hands-on volunteering initiatives. 

By dedicating one’s actions toward creating a better secular world, one brings the sacred into focus.

Alongside a quickening of political advocacy, King might urge us to rethink our current stances rather than simply defending our long-held faith traditions. The church has no problem addressing other political issues. White pastors praise American freedom and denounce the evils of abortion all day long, but for some reason things get complicated when dealing specifically with race. In contrast, liberation theology demands continued growth, which includes the shedding of antiquated ideals. 

We are drawn to wonder why Christians become so apprehensive toward racial activism and so wary of its implications. If the Christian faith leads to internal change, shouldn’t it lead to structural change? Shouldn’t those who are “free” in Christ be the biggest advocates for setting the oppressed free?

To know God is to do justice. “‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the LORD,” (Jer. 22:16). To bring heaven to earth is to do justice. To practice liberation is to do justice.

We must be careful not to relegate the life and mission of Martin Luther King, Jr. into a historical event. His life is not to only be a source of inspiration, but a springboard for action. Embracing aspects of liberation theology helps us do that: it helps us refocus our energy toward the practical living out of our faith.

His life is not to only be a source of inspiration, but a springboard for action.

In A Theology of Liberation, one of the founders of liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez, asks us: “What part have you played in the effective and integral liberation of the oppressed?” May we ask ourselves this question each day as we strive to take quicker action and challenge our long-held beliefs. May we be receptive to new understanding, leaders of activism and key players in long-term change. 

Gutiérrez, G. (1971). A Theology of Liberation.