Martin Luther King’s letter from the apostle Paul: two revolutionaries

Martin Luther King’s letter from the apostle Paul: two revolutionaries 

April 4th was the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King.  In remembering this date, we mark the death of a martyr.  The apostle Paul was also a peaceful social revolutionary who likely died a martyr’s death at the hands of the Romans.  For many people, Paul was an uptight social conformist who encouraged slaves to remain with their masters (Ephesians 5-9).  Martin Luther King knew better.  One thing he probably knew is that Ephesians is one of the many forged lettersMartin Luther King’s letter from Paul is the post for today, but first a few comments on Paul, and why he fits so well with MLK. 


Today, many people think about salvation as a private act.  “Christ is my personal savior” is how it is sometimes put.  But that’s an individualistic way of thinking, Christ rendering a service like any other, dry-cleaner for the soul.  For Paul, salvation is achieved in and through groups.  On the last night of his life, King said he had seen the promised land even if he was not to enter it.  The promised land was freedom, but not just freedom.  It was freedom under God.*  For King too, salvation was a collective as well as an individual act.

Paul recognized that Christ had broken through all the old distinctions, such as between pure and impure, circumcised and uncircumcised, rich and poor and even male and female (Galatians 3:28).  This is always threatening to the established order.  Paul’s goal was the establishment of religious communities, sometimes called ekklesia, often translated as church.  That is misleading. 

What Paul sought to establish was koinonia, the fellowship and unity that should exist within the community that worshiped Messiah (it was not a Christian community, for Christianity did not exist at time Paul wrote).  Koinonias were share communities; each taking what he or she needed, each contributing what he or she could.  Though most reject the term “communism” to describe these communities, it seems the correct term, as long as we remember that we are not talking about Marx, but about communism as communion.  

“Do not be conformed to this world,” wrote Paul (Romans 12:2).  For the “wisdom of the world” is based on domination, injustice, division, and violence (1 Corinthians 2:6-16).  This order is best rejected in communities based on love and sharing.  Perhaps the best contemporary examples are the Christian base communities associated with Liberation Theology.  The fate of these communities (most failed) testifies only to the dominance of power, including church power.  

Paul believed that the eschaton, God’s dream for the world, had begun with Christ and was already under way.  Paul’s communities were part of the “new creation” of the world the way it was meant to be (Borg and Crossan, pp 187-188).  When Paul writes of love, as he does a lot, he means agape, caring love for others, first in the community, then throughout the world. 

Justification by faith” isn’t about belief; it’s about a way of life.

When Paul wrote about justification by faith (Romans 5:1; Galatians 3:24), he was not writing about the forgiveness of sins, or that the believer would become like Christ.  This   interpretation came 1,600 years later with the Protestant Reformation.  For Paul, justification was the awareness of those who believed in Messiah that they were part of a worldwide family promised to Abraham (Genesis 17:1-8).  A community that shared a common table, despite all differences: neither Jew nor Greek, neither black, brown, or white, since “all are one in the Messiah, Jesus.”  (Galatians 3:28)

An interpretation of Paul that sees him first and foremost as the creator of koinonias changes everything we think we know about Paul.  While much attention is paid to Paul’s transformation on the road to Damascus, more attention should be paid to what he said, and what it meant in its original Roman context.  Not because Paul was a Roman citizen (that’s debatable), but because Rome was the center of domination, and koinonias the alternative.  Like Christ, Paul did not oppose Roman taxes, but the Roman way of thinking, what he called with less than subtle irony the “wisdom of the world.”  This opposition could only be lived out with others. 

MLK’s letter from Paul

I, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to you who are in America, Grace be unto you, and peace from God our Father, through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

For many years I have longed to be able to come to see you. I have heard so much of you and of what you are doing. I have heard of the fascinating and astounding advances that you have made in the scientific realm. I have heard of your dashing subways and flashing airplanes. Through your scientific genius you have been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. . . . All of that is marvelous. You can do so many things in your day that I could not do in the Greco-Roman world of my day. In your age you can travel distances in one day that took me three months to travel. That is wonderful. You have made tremendous strides in the area of scientific and technological development.

But America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So, America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances. . . .

American Christians, I must say to you as I said to the Roman Christians years ago, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or, as I said to the Philippian Christians, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” This means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God. . . .

The misuse of capitalism can also lead to tragic exploitation. . . . God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe “enough and to spare” for that purpose. So, I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.

I would that I could be with you in person, so that I could say to you face to face what I am forced to say to you in writing. Oh, how I long to share your fellowship.  But I must bring my writing to a close now. Timothy is waiting to deliver this letter, and I must take leave for another church.

But just before leaving, I must say to you, as I said to the church at Corinth, that I still believe that love is the most durable power in the world. Over the centuries men have sought to discover the highest good. This has been the chief quest of ethical philosophy. This was one of the big questions of Greek philosophy. The Epicurean and the Stoics sought to answer it; Plato and Aristotle sought to answer it. What is the summon bonum of life? I think I have an answer America. I think I have discovered the highest good. It is love. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos. As John says, “God is love.” He who loves is a participant in the being of God. He who hates does not know God. . . .

So, American Christians you may master the intricacies of the English language.  You may possess all of the eloquence of articulate speech.  But even if you “speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not love, you have become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”

So the greatest of all virtues is love. It is here that we find the true meaning of the Christian faith. This is at bottom the meaning of the cross. . . .It is an eternal reminder to a power drunk generation that love is most durable power in the world, and that it is at bottom the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. . . .

I must say goodbye now. I hope this letter will find you strong in the faith. It is probable that I will not get to see you in America, but I will meet you in God’s eternity. And now unto him who is able to keep us from falling, and lift us from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, from the midnight of desperation to the daybreak of joy, to him be power and authority, forever and ever. Amen.…/414_4-Nov-1956_Pauls%20Letter%20to%20Amer%20Christians…

Social policy and love

What would Paul’s love look like today?  Or MLK’s?  We are a mass society, not a koinonia.  The love we need is social love: housing for the homeless, food for the hungry, education for all who long to know, health care for every American (no, for every person in America), protection from racists and bullies.  I could go on, but you get the idea: love can be a guideline for social policy if we let it.


* I heard one of MLK’s last sermons and spoke with him briefly.  He knew his death would come soon.


Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul.  HarperCollins, 2009.

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