Heroes in Black and White: Precious Puritans Vs. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Christians are not immune to racial, cultural, or theological bias and blindness. Those types of bias and blindness may be more apparent in Christendom for the Puritans and Martin Luther King, Jr. – cultural and theological heroes to many Christians.

Precious Dust Up

The dust up over Christian rapper Propaganda’s lyrics in his song “Precious Puritans” recently brought some of these issues to the surface. Propaganda charged the Puritans, broadly defined, with certain racial moral failures charging white privilege against some pastors who quote the Puritans. Some Christians argued that Propaganda defined the Puritans too broadly and unfairly charged them. Funny thing is – Propaganda still reads the Puritans.

Listen to “Precious Puritans” below and judge for yourself. The song actually ends with the following lines.

And, it bothers me when you quote puritans, if I’m honest, for the same reason it bothers me when people quote me–they precious propaganda.
So, I guess it’s true.
God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines.
Just like your precious puritans.

In an interview with Joe Thorn, Propaganda clarified the songs message and approach. “The song was really designed to be a bait and switch. The indictment on the puritans is really a secondary point. They were not perfect in living out their theology.”[Joe Thorn. Precious Puritans (Pt. 2). joethorn.net] Propaganda even tweeted,”I’m just sayin don’t treat folks like they’re inerrant”

Can the same theological imperfections be pointed out about modern day hero Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Culture

When people quote the Puritans they do not normally describe them using their sins such as “slave owner Jonathan Edwards,” for example. When people refer to King they do not normally point out his adultery or his plagiarism. Actually, there are not many people whose sins are pointed out when being positively quoted. Neither King nor the Puritans perfectly lived out their theology – no one does.

One defense of the Puritans, like many historical figures, is that they were products of their time. The Puritans lived in a culture much different from today where forms of slavery were, sadly, accepted. As transcendent as the teachings of God are in the Bible, acceptance of any form of slavery is difficult to swallow. However, it is undeniable that culture does influence worldviews.

Despite the rich theological writings left by the Puritans, some of them were blind to racism. One could find and focus on those Puritans who did not participate in slavery. One might also be sensitive to the audience when quoting certain Puritans as Propaganda suggests in his song. Much can be learned from the Puritans which includes learning from their blindness to certain sins.

Some of King’s deficiencies have also been defended as being products of his culture. Some have defended his plagiarism as being part of African American preaching tradition. His theology has also been excused by some as being shaped by liberal theologians because black Americans were not generally admitted into conservative seminaries.

If God’s word is relevant today and for all time – it is – then neither party should be declared innocent via cultural atonement. These cultural shortfalls can teach Christians today if they are not ignored.

Theology

In addition to King’s moral failures are, more importantly, his theological shortfalls. Contrary to his church’s teachings and cultural influence, at 13 King denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus.1 He also denied the divinity of Jesus.2 Those two theological denials would lead many (most?) to deny that King was actually a Christian who preached a gospel that could save.

King’s unorthodox beliefs do not take away from the great social and political changes he championed. King made great needed changes in the U.S. and is rightly deemed an American hero by many, but should not necessarily be held as a Christian hero.

The admiration toward King’s accomplishments may blind some from objectively evaluating his theology just as the racial moral failings of some Puritans may blind some from objectively evaluating their theology. Maybe the bias and blindness are not so black and white; or maybe they are in more ways than one.

King’s theology and moral failings are off-limits in many circles because of his important social activism. Similarly, the Puritans moral failures are off-limits in many circles because of their important theological contributions. May be it is best not to ignore the sins and bad theology of some past heroes, but rather address those sins through the biblical lens of the one true hero.

One True Hero

There is truly only one real hero – Jesus Christ.

Some how Christians must leave their biases and objectively deal with each other as fellow believers in Christ. An example of different cultures and people coming together is in Paul’s letter to Colossae, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11 ESV).

Scripture also rebukes Christians who make idols of other men, including the Apostles.

“For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?“(1 Cor. 1:11-13 ESV).

How do Christians today drop their  racial, cultural, or theological bias and see through the gospel? The same way as they did in the first century, by following Christ. Following Christ and His Scriptures might mean admitting that some Puritans had moral failings and being careful when quoting them. It may mean admitting that Martin Luther King, Jr. may not have been a Christian while accepting that God could have still used him to facilitate change in America.

But Christians do not ultimately celebrate men for their accomplishments, but we turn to Jesus Christ so that in “whatever [we] do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3:17 ESV). However, I will not pretend that giving thanks in all things is easy. I will not pretend that I will ever be able to fully and personally understand the plight of my black brothers and sisters in Christ in this sinful world – I won’t! I will try to understand though. I will do my best to meet them at the cross and encourage them to do the same with me.

In areas of weakness and lack of understanding, Christ is all we have. Jesus is ultimately the only one who understands and can help all of us. He is not a “high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16 ESV).

For what it’s worth…

Mark

  1. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted in “An Autobiography of Religious Development,” http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu. “At the age of 13 I shocked my Sunday School class by denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus. From the age of thirteen on doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly. At the age of fifteen I entered college and more and more could I see a gap between what I had learned in Sunday School and what I was learning in college. This conflict continued until I studied a course in Bible in which I came to see that behind the legends and myths of the Book were many profound truths which one could not escape.”
  2. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted in “The Humanity and Divinity of Jesus,” http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu. As he had done in his earlier outline of William Newton Clarke’s An Outline of Christian Theology, King dismisses the conception of an inherent divinity in Jesus and concludes: “The true significance of the divinity of Christ lies in the fact that his achievement is prophetic and promissory for every other true son of man who is willing to submit his will to the will and spirit (of) God.”
Tags: , , , , , , ; Categories: calvinism,Christianity,Church Issues,Culture,Gospel,morality,politics,relativism,theology
The above article was posted on October 12, 2012 by Mark Lamprecht.
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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 dr. james willingham November 17, 2012 at 10:40 pm

It is also true that the Puritans were their own critics, never hesitating in many cases to excoriate their own shortcomings. Consider Samuel Sewall’s The Selling of Joseph, one of the first tracts in the great war against slavery. We all come short at some point, but the Puritans were at least aware of that fact which many seem to ignore today or to present themselves as entirely ignorant of that reality.

2 Ken March 29, 2013 at 10:49 pm

“acceptance of any form of slavery is difficult to swallow.”

I would say that if one is taking issue with slavery in general as a Christian there is a very serious problem. That when taken to its logical end, is an attack against both God and Christ.

1. We are called Slaves of Christ. We are Owned, Purchased by Christ. We do not own ourselves, we have no rights – we have only what our master gives us… I think the real issue with this song comes in when we are told ” You can’t own People” … From a biblical perspective as men, we own our wives, children and the 10 commandment includes ownership of slaves.

2. Slavery is accepted and even commanded in the OT. To ignore this or to minimize the Puritans devotion to scripture and assume that what they did was typified by slavery in the 1800′s, is problematic at best. Is there evidence of how Puritans treated their slaves? Is there documentation that they abused their slaves?

We must as believers submit to logic and reason not emotion on this topic, if we are to function biblically.

3 News2urEars January 27, 2014 at 1:05 am

So Dr. MLK, Jr., was like Rob Bell? Ai yai yai!!

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