What is Man? by MLK

I have been recently running a reading group on MLK, in the shadow of Ferguson, with ongoing protests in the segregated city of STL. Meeting at Concordia Seminary, we are walking distance from the Delmar Divide.

MLK brought forth his advocacy with a coherent creation theology. From time to time I will draw attention to it, because his work is deeply influencing my own thought. Recently, I asked @Jon_Garvey to write about What is Man?. What do you all think of MLK’s foundational articulation of the nature of man? What correctives does it offer to the origins debate? And to our society in general?



Here is the question that comes to mind reading your link.

I agree that sin is not somehow fundamental to biology; it has its source in the supernatural. But I do not think evil and sin are synonymous, and I do not think sin/rebellion against God or evil can be reduced to merely the sum of every human’s individual bad choices. I think the Bible teaches that there are other creatures/entities in this universe who are in rebellion against God and have been since before our time. Adam and Eve were tempted by evil and lies that were present outside of them in their world from the beginning. The chaos that God subdued at Creation was considered an evil thing and came from somewhere other than God or humans.

I think this is a key observation relevant to the race situation in the US because all too often I hear people talk about racism as if it is just the sum of everyone’s individual choices and deny that there are powerful systemic forces (of evil I would say) outside each individual that contribute to the situations in which we all make our individual choices. I think the church has moved beyond where it was in the civil rights era. No one I know is going to argue (based on biology or theology) that minorities are somehow less endowed with God’s image or less deserving of human rights. But they do argue that the race problems in our country are just individual’s sinning against individuals and if we could all just make better choices, all the problems would go away. Unless we have a concept of sin and evil that is bigger than that, I don’t think we’ll move much as far as justice is concerned.


We do have a concept of sin that is bigger than this. It is called Original Sin. Or Ancestral Sin, Right?

Ironically, those in the CHurch most concerned about systemic injustice seem most allergic to original sin. Those most ardent about original sin seem most blind to systemic injustice. Why is that?

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No, I think it’s different. Original sin is only about humans. I think their are evil forces hostile to God at work in this world that don’t stem from Original sin.

That is true too.

Ancestral sin does seem pretty important too. Our ancestors intentionally set up systems designed to segregate and oppress. We inherit the world they created, and it cause us to sin and to be complicit in sin. This, surely, is a type of ancestral sin.

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I don’t know, but I think it is interesting that those most concerned about systemic justice tend to favor Christus Victor models of atonement and those most concerned with original sin tend to favor a penal substitutionary model of the atonement. So maybe their different reactions to systemic injustice stem from different ideas (or at least different focus) of what the atonement accomplished. If I focus on Christ defeating the powers of darkness, bringing the Kingdom would be more about addressing powers of darkness still working in our world and proclaiming Christ’s victory in those areas. If I focus on how Christ made me righteous and freed me from slavery to sin, then bringing the Kingdom will be more about my personal sanctification and holiness.


An essay that I used to teach every year: Martin Luther King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail

One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an “I - it” relationship for the “I - thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Isn’t segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”…

Let me rush on to mention my other disappointment. I have been disappointed with the white church and its leadership. … I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother. In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with,” and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular…

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. … We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.


That is very well said! I get frustrated sometimes in the debate between the two camps and wonder whether the two atonement theories have to be mutually exclusive (as is often seemingly portrayed) and why we can’t take take seriously both addressing the powers of darkness and personal sanctification/holiness. It seems like there are robust support in scripture for both.



You could call it societal sin. If you call it Ancestral Sin, you will surely confuse the issue!

Permit me to suggest a scenario that may clarify a distinction between ‘Original Sin’ and ‘Ancestral Sin’ that personally satisfies me:

Early Homo sapiens’ behavior was largely driven by evolutionary derived animal instinct, but when gifted with conscience, each individual could rise above instinct (with its sometimes beastial elements) to embrace love and empathy which could make them Image Bearers. However, as individuals,or even as small family clans,Homo sapiens lacked the power to become, as Genesis implies, Masters of the Planet; e.g. they needed to form large cooperative societies. Insects ‘solved’ this problem forming genetically based societies thru kinship. Homo sapiens ‘solved’ it thru the sharing of common ideas, culture and laws. I have dubbed this thru common Noogenes. Human societies then progressed from smaller to larger Tribes, then City States, then on to larger Nations. All the while the leaders of these growing societies gained greater power by stressing any imagined difference between US and THEM. That constituted ‘Ancestral Sin’, which Jesus cautioned against by teaching that Leaders should first be Servants, not power-seekers. Currently our politicians all claim to be serving the people’s interest. Would that were always so!!!
Al Leo

I find it hard to say that the USA is a “Christian” nation when many or most of us believe in the survival of the fittest.

Sin is relational. It is the wrong relationship to God, to others, and to ourselves. We can also include God’s Creation as an other. They are all connected. We cannot truthfully say that we love God when we despise our fellow human beings. It is impossible to love ourselves, when we are in a bad relationship with others. It is impossible to love God when we are ashamed of our sins.

If is hard to be in right relationships when the world is in a mess, but this is what we are called to do and can do through the Holy Spirit. What we cannot do is act out of fear, anger, and self- righteousness.

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Could not agree more. I apologize for the rant that follows, and if the moderators decide that I have crossed the line and delete it, there is no need to explain. In any case, I was thinking about MLK’s essay, and the Black Lives Matter protest, and the current situation with the NFL protests, and the current situation in St. Louis in your OP, and the following thoughts occur to me:

The problem cannot be laid solely at the feet of the police. The problem is one of justice. When lives are taken and police are brought to trial, the juries almost always find them not guilty. This indicates a problem with society at large, not just the police. When juries – which are intentionally and constitutionally composed to represent society – cannot bring themselves to find police guilty, then our problem is societal and cultural, and will not be solved simply by the police.

Until we, as a society, come to recognize that the problem lies within our own hearts, there will be no justice in this land, and MLK’s complaints still ring true.

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At the risk of treading further onto unwanted ground, the problem may go deeper. Juries are instructed to follow the law in their decision making, and local laws typically allow police a great deal of latitude in using violence in the line of duty.

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