- Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Theology of Resistanceby Rufus Burrow Jr.
Rufus Burrow Jr.’s Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Theology of Resistanceadds to the already crowded field of King studies with a spiritual evaluation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s intellectual and personal life. David J. Garrow and Taylor Branch have written seminal probing biographies of King, and Jonathan Rieder and Richard Lischer have produced close readings of King’s preaching and rhetoric. Additionally, a slew of historians have sought to contextualize King within the larger civil rights movement. Burrow, however, focuses on the intersection between King’s religious beliefs and his social activism. King, Burrow argues, was a “man of ideals and ideas,” at once a Christian minister, a civil rights activist, and a “theological social ethicist” (pp. ix, 96).
Claiming there is “[n]ot nearly enough” scholarship on the subject, Burrow delves into the specifics of King’s thought, particularly his personalism, the belief that God is a personal and loving creator who imbues all of humanity with special significance, or “somebodiness” (pp. 13, 2). Tracing King’s personalism back not only to his graduate studies at Boston University but also to his rearing in the black church, Burrow claims that King’s was a “homespun personalism,” a coherent theological framework that animated the civil rights struggle (p. 10). This careful examination of King’s personalism and its expression is the main thrust of the work. The book’s emphasis on King’s personalism becomes redundant in its fifteen chapters, which have been cobbled together from decades of Burrow’s conference papers, speeches, and previously published journal articles. After a prolonged examination of King’s thought, Burrow turns, somewhat predictably, to current social issues, echoing King in asking, “Where do we go from here?” (p. 199).
Burrow’s main contribution lies in his insistence on examining King’s thoughts and actions together, claiming that they are “integrally interrelated” (p. 6). This assertion is valid, even pressing. When theologians focus on doctrine and historians look at action, what is lost? A lot, as it turns out. But what about the scores of other Christian (and non-Christian) activists? Burrow hints at the broader implications of his study of King (though he stays close to King), calling for a larger examination of the link between ideas and resistance, what he calls the “theology of resistance.” But this is a flat (if inspiring) phrase. Theologians are not always resisting, of course, and theological beliefs often uphold oppressive structures of power. For this reason, instead of simply finding in King a theology of resistance, it might be easier to broaden the scope by borrowing the phrase “lived theology” from University of Virginia scholar Charles Marsh (see his website www.livedtheology.org). Like Burrow, Marsh acknowledges the link between ideas and action but applies it to both leaders and laypeople, to those who resist and those who reinforce injustice. Scholars of King and of the civil rights movement will surely benefit from Burrow’s [End Page 732]work on King’s theology of resistance, but the examination must be extended to include ordinary Americans who also represent ideas as well as ideals.