Monday, January 16, 2012

Prophetic Christian as Organic Intellectual: Martin Luther King, Jr.

The major challenges to King's black church formation came from the critiques of religion put forward by Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzche as, for example, Marx's claim (based on Ludwig Feuerbach's views) that religion was the opiate of the people - the instrument of those who rule in that it divests people of their own powers by investing God with all power and thereby rendering them submissive and deferential toward the status quo. Furthermore, Marx's claim of the vast economic disparity between the rich and poor - for instance, the class inequality in America between 1 percent of the population who owned 28 percent of the wealth and the bottom 45 percent of the population who owned 2 percent of the wealth - made an important impact on King. King's black church formation led him to conclude that many forms of religion did render people submissive, but also that prophetic Christianity could empower people to fight against oppression and struggle for freedom and justice. King remained convinced all of his life that there was a need for a redistribution of wealth and a deemphasis on material possessions in a profit-oriented capitalist society. And later in life, King endorsed some forms of (indigenous) American democratic and libertarian socialism that preserved a constitutional rule of law and protected individual liberties in order to secure and promote a "person-centered rather than property-centered and profit-centered" economy. In regard to his response to Marx, King wrote:
I read Marx as I read all of the influential historical thinkers - from a dialectical point of view, combining a partial yes and a partial no. Insofar as Marx posited a metaphysical materialism, an ethical relativism, and a strangulating totalitarianism, I responded with an unambiguous "no"; but insofar as he pointed to weaknesses of traditional capitalism, contributed to the growth of a definite self-consciousness in the masses, and challenged the social conscience of the Christian churches, I responded with a definite "yes."
In short, King succumbed to neither a knee-jerk negative reaction to Marx without reading and grappling with him nor an uncritical acceptance of Marx's atheism, which overlooked the contribution of prophetic religious people to struggles for freedom.
-Cornel West, The Cornel West Reader, "Prophetic Christian as Organic Intellectual: Martin Luther King, Jr." pg. 431

[originally posted 1/17/11 12:01 AM]