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What would Martin do?

What would Martin do?

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, Senior Religion Editor of The Huffington Post asks “Would King have evolved on Gay Rights?”

President Obama’s declaration of support for marriage equality has created an uproar in Christian communities across America, and nowhere more poignantly than in the Black Church where the President is largely admired, but which has traditionally been more socially conservative on issues of sexuality.

Many African American leaders have come out strongly in support of same-sex marriage and the president as a fundamental issue of justice and civil rights. The NAACP made the decision to support marriage equality with the Chairman of the Board of Directors, Roslyn M. Brock, stating: “The mission of the NAACP has always been to ensure the political, social and economic equality of all people. We have and will oppose efforts to codify discrimination into law.”

Likewise, Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, said to his church: The question I believe we should pose to our congregations is, “Should all Americans have the same civil rights?”

Of course, many black Christian leaders are pushing back against the president and his “slap in the face of black clergy” and “declaration of political war against the venerable institution of marriage,” according to Bishop Harry Jackson.

Recently, and not surprisingly, the emotional battle over LGBT rights has focused on America’s moral giant Martin Luther King, Jr. and the question: “What Would Martin Do?”

The article references negative reactions by MLK’s relatives towards same-sex marriage, and also an interesting quote from Ebony magazine (the only public message by MLK on homosexuality, in 1958) and analysis by Professor Michael Long. Then the author continues:

But the question that remains open: had he lived to see this day, would Martin Luther King, Jr’s view of LGBT peoples have ‘evolved’ (to use the president’s word) to full acceptance and in support of same-sex marriage?

Engaging in a persuasive and personal argument, author Paul Brandeis Raushenbush reflects on his great-grandfather, Walter Raushenbush, a prominent preacher of the early 20th century who was closely identified with the Social Gospel, and who influenced MLK. Preacher Raushenbush, while decring slavery and Jim Crow as modern-day sin, still at times “…expressed a world view whose racism makes one cringe in embarrassment.”

Yet there is no question that Rauschenbusch would have supported the black civil rights movement. Walter would have evolved as he came face to face with more African Americans and recognized their struggle for basic dignity and rights as part of the call of the Gospel.

Never a fundamentalist or Biblical literalist, Rauschenbusch understood passages in Scripture that apparently condoned racism or slavery as errant in the extreme, and saw through people who used them for oppressive ends as theologically lazy or willfully mean.

Rauschenbusch’s non-fundamentalist approach to the tradition and the Bible would have allowed him to continue to evolve on the question of race until he had repented (and it does call for repentance) of the racism that dominated his time and place and embraced the civil rights movement as God’s Spirit continuing to move in the world.

King was also not a fundamentalist or Biblical literalist. In King’s time, many black churches, and more white churches, were wary of King’s justice work. Churches and traditions that then (and still today) used a fundamentalist approach to theology and literalist approach to Scripture were deeply suspicious of, if not outright hostile to, King’s civil rights and poverty work.

Yet King’s non-fundamentalist approach to faith and Scripture freed him to hear the Spirit moving in his own time. Transcending centuries of racist teachings to the contrary, he knew that the core of the Gospel was justice, dignity and freedom for all people.

Throughout his life, King expanded his circle of concern to include the civil rights movement, to the Vietnam War, to the plight of poor people of every color. Dr. Wallace Best, a religion and African American studies professor at Princeton put it succinctly: “Fundamentally, King stood for justice, equality and fairness and certainly against any kind of discrimination.”


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Richard E. Helmer


The materials in question are papers written by theologians on both sides of the same-sex marriage question requested from the House of Bishops theology committee and presented to the House in 2010. Both papers were published side-by-side in Anglican Theological Review in full last year, and the Lead reported on their circulation with links here:

As far as the quality of the arguments made, the readers can decide for themselves!

Kurt Wiesner

Some interesting comments here. (Frankly, some embarrassing comments as well…)

I think one thing that shines through is the uncertainty people are expressing towards speculating about what a person from history would think about a time beyond their own.

Well, of course it is “unanswerable” as far as accurately saying someone’s position with certainty.

However, I find it a helpful exercise to move beyond “said/didn’t say” arguments to answer what someone would think today, and to instead explore the core principles that led one to reason, live, and change in their own lifetime, in order to make helpful observations for today.

Rauschenbusch does this well in his article in his illustration concerning his great-grandfather, and the way King spoke of him despite his early 20th century world view. From the article, King wrote on preacher Rauschenbusch:

“‘Rauschenbusch gave to American Protestantism a sense of social responsibility that it should never lose. The gospel at its best deals with the whole man. Not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well being but his material well-being.'”

“Yet what King politely omitted was the relatively scant attention Rauschenbusch paid to the question of racism. While he decried slavery and Jim Crow as a modern-day sin, Rauschenbusch never addressed racism squarely, and at some points expressed a world view whose racism makes one cringe in embarrassment.”

King saw what Rauschenbusch stood for, and applied that wisdom and interpretation to the events of his day.

It is a fair argument by the author to see in King’s life that the basic principles lead to a conclusion that “…he knew that the core of the Gospel was justice, dignity and freedom for all people.”

Whether or not King himself would have “evolved” is less of the real issue than understanding that King’s Gospel was about justice, dignity, and freedom for all people.


the conserving case offers a particularly clear differentiation between the gay rights movement and other human rights movements. The paper rightly [?!?] points out that the evils of slavery, racism, unjust war, discrimination against women, etc. are all events that came into being after The Fall

Is this for real? What House of Bishops wrote this, 1912?

[Seriously, IIRC, isn’t this from about 20 years ago? At any rate, it’s embarrassing in 2012.]

JC Fisher

David Allen

(In fact, one could argue that a good definition of “justice” itself, is a return to Eden prior to The Fall, whatever the issue.) There was no slavery, racism, war, or sexual discrimination prior to The Fall. However, there were also no same-sex relationships, only (first) singleness, and (second) marriage between one man and one woman. Since same-sex relationships developed after The Fall, they are thus subject to the imperfection and injustice of its distorting power. Any movement FOR gay rights is a movement away from Eden, not toward it, and is thus a movement AGAINST justice.

There is nothing in the Hebrew text of the story of Eden in Genesis that supports your interpretation John Campbell. A thorough probing of the story of the humans in the garden, especially a probing of the original language and the very specific Hebrew terms used to designate them, leads one to understand that the first human that God created and then later the companion God made so that human was not alone, were very different creatures than the two expelled from the garden “after the Fall.” The help mate that God gave to the first human was identical to it, it was a clone. There was no death at that point in the story, there was no need for procreation and there was no gender differentiation, and yet it was at that point that God gave one to the other as a pair bond.

It was after “the Fall” that procreation was introduced and the task of physically bearing human offspring was given to Eve as her punishment for her part in bringing about “the Fall.” It is perhaps because of the facts of the story in the Hebrew that when Jesus was asked regarding who would be someone’s spouse at the resurrection that he answered that there would be no marriage, there would no longer be a need for procreation, things would again return as they were before the Fall, as Paul said, neither male nor female.

Brother David

Weiwen Ng

For those of us who don’t know, Bayard Rustin was gay and King knew it.

Personally, I’m sure King would be on the pro LGBT side. Rauschenbusch offers a compelling argument for. I’m sure someone could come up with an argument against.

However, I feel quite mixed in invoking King to support causes he didn’t weigh in on, and I feel a bit similarly with historical figures. I’ve preferred to leave historical figures to their times in public discourse, if possible.

For example, Oscar Romero+ became a staunch advocate for justice … but he would have been a staunch opponent several key (imo) reproductive freedoms and LGBT causes. His opposition would have been inexorable, because of his church, although he might well have downplayed that side of things. Had he been Anglican, he might be different, but he is not Anglican.

Then again, it’s all but certain that Jesus would have Occupied Wall Street. Why He would have done so is self-evident to anyone who doesn’t work in or profit from the financial system, or even from some within in: a small class of people have gradually been expropriating more and more wealth, making the economy more and more vulnerable to financial panics, and yet they tell us everything is fine and it’s Communism to stop us, and if things really come to a head you should let the banks just go bankrupt. Except that when things did come to a head, letting one bank go led to another one going, so the government intervened to stop it, and then any subsequent attempts by the government to restrain the financial sector were decried as Communism. A bit like the money changers at temple, profaning a sacred place by exploiting people financially. Jesus took a whip to the latter, so what would he have done to the former?

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