It’s easy to point to similarities between German Protestant reformer Martin Luther and the 20th-century civil rights icon who bore his name.
Both Christian iconoclasts bound by conscience to speak truth to power, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. may seem like they were cut from the same cloth.
But they also diverged in important ways, according to Michael Haspel, director of the Evangelical Academy in Thuringia a professor for systematic theology at Friedrich Schiller-University.
Speaking during a lecture at the Goethe Zentrum Atlanta in late June, Dr. Haspel said conventional wisdom about Luther is being reexamined this year during the quincentennial anniversary of the Protestant Reformation’s kickoff. Next April will bring the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination.
In his fight against segregation, Atlanta’s native son clearly drew inspiration from Luther’s courageous effort to realign the Catholic church with the commands of scripture.
In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King justified his own dogged pursuit of change by appealing to Luther and other historical and biblical believers who could have been labeled “extremists” for challenging the status quo in their times.
“Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” Dr. King wrote.
Also, in addressing an audience in Berlin in 1964, he acknowledged gratitude for being named after the reformer and further his mission with that of civil rights activists in the U.S.:
“Our only explanation can be that we were gripped by God in this holy kairos; our only response could be that of Martin Luther, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.’”
But while it’s clear Dr. King understood Luther’s role in Reformation history, it’s a mystery how much he had read of Luther’s actual writings. And the ultimate goals and motivations for the two men were somewhat different based on their contexts.
While Dr. King’s view of righteousness was more centered in social justice and global citizenship, Luther was less concerned with challenging the secular world, instead emphasizing fidelity to the scripture within the church itself. The idea of “human rights” as Dr. King viewed them would have been foreign to Luther’s feudal society and monastic worldview, Dr. Haspel said.
King’s Germany Travels and the Luther Name
But before it was even clear what his son would grow up to be, Martin Luther King Sr., the Atlanta pastor affectionately known as Daddy King, would be inspired enough to formally link both himself and his son with the Protestant reformer by name.
While Daddy King said his own father had called him Martin Luther, that designation was absent from his birth certificate, which simply listed “Michael.”
Daddy King wrote in his autobiography that he had made the change official in 1933, after his father died, also imparting the name to “M.L.” Jr. at the same time. But no paper trail exists to verify that version.
Based on interviews by biographers with friends of the family, some point to his visit to Berlin in 1934 for the Baptist World Congress as the turning point for the naming, and Dr. Haspel sees evidence for that view.
Either way, the change was an expression of reverence for the reformers, especially given the import of names in the Bible.
“It’s giving significance to the person, the task of this person, the dignity of this person,” Dr. Haspel said.
And in the African American community it carried even more weight: When slaves were brought to the South from Africa, they were often stripped of their former identities and renamed by their masters.
Martin Luther King Jr. would also travel to Germany in 1964, 30 years after his father and well into his crusade for civil rights.
He crossed the Berlin Wall to give a speech at a church in East Germany. It’s possible that he was allowed to pass through because he was seen as a “good American” by the East German communists, given that he represented a challenge to the U.S. government at the time, Dr. Haspel said.
“The story goes that he crossed the border with his American Express card,” he said.
During his remarks there, MLK Jr. never mentioned, as far as historians can tell, his father’s previous visit exactly three decades earlier, Dr. Haspel added.
Mutual Respect for Law, Divergent Views on Jews
However the moniker was applied, Martin Luther and and his 20th-century African American namesake shared more than a name.
While both revolutionary in their mindsets, both displayed a respect for the rule of law, despite drastic differences in what that meant in their respective periods. Dr King strategically violated state laws to trigger constitutional challenges in federal courts. Luther advocated obeying the imperial authorities, as long as they allowed freedom of worship. He also backed an imperial peace agreement that required princes to take care of their people.
Both posted demands on the door of the authority they challenged. Luther nailed his famed 95 theses condemning the sale of indulgences to the doors of churches in Wittenburg, Germany. Likewise but less known, Dr. King made his demands for Chicago housing reform known in a notice posted on the door of City Hall in 1966. He saw it as the next practical step toward dignity through economic inclusion after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in 1964 and 1965, respectively.
But they differed in some substantive ways. Dr. King envisioned a “beloved community” of all faiths working together globally toward peace. He drew substantially from the Hebrew prophets and credited Indian independence activist Mohandas Gandhi for some of his foundational thinking on nonviolent resistance.
Luther, for his part, published some blatantly antisemitic writings that demonized Jews and even urged rulers to expel them by force or kill them if necessary. This was later in his life, after it became clear that Jews wouldn’t just automatically convert now that the Reformation had restored what he saw as the true gospel.
“[These writings] became influential, even though at that time in then-Germany, there weren’t very many Jews anymore because they had already been expelled,” Dr. Haspel said.
During the Holocaust, some Nazis used Luther’s writings as justification for their movement. Dr. Haspel said there’s no real reason to see a link: Nazism was more based on an interpretation of race and nationhood than theology.
Still, scholars are now wrestling with Luther’s troubling writings more than ever rather than explaining them as an aberration from his later ministry.
“I think what we have to address is that it was part of his thinking.”
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