The Prophet, Psychology, and Memory: The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

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Another alternative to the myth of modernity in the black church involved their stubborn refusal to rely on anachronistic psychological and therapeutic interpretations of Jesus as heavily as the white, liberal churches did. Jesus provided more than a moral example of true being or selflessness. Christ was the Suffering Servant of Isaiah’s prophecies, and in Him the community survives and finds salvation as they share in His suffering. Christ is not a dead, moral teacher. He lives and engages the world, specifically in the suffering and marginalized. He invites their participation in the Kingdom of God coming to earth.

Lischer’s discussion of this is fantastic. He states that when King did employ psychology in his preaching, it did not involve a psychoanalytical approach to the person of Jesus, but rather one of subversion.[1] His use of the rhetoric of psychology served to call his black audience to “audacious” liberation. Consider King’s use of the word “maladjusted.” With this single word he not only employs the rhetoric of the academy, but he creatively demonstrates that the psychological standards of white America are themselves dysfunctional, thereby calling his audience to maladjustedness:

It is the word maladjusted. This word is the ringing cry of modern child psychology. Certainly all of us want to live a well-adjusted life in order to avoid the neurotic personality. But I say to you, there are certain things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon all men of good will to be maladjusted.[2]

From there he goes on to say that he never intended to be adjusted to the evils of segregation, discrimination, religious bigotry, economic disparity, militarism, or physical violence. In not adjusting to these matters, King then calls his audience to the maladjustment of the biblical prophets, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus of Nazareth—in other words, to a larger maladjusted community of prophets.[3]

This call to communal maladjustment also demonstrates, finally, that Modernity’s myth of the isolated, autonomous individual made no sense in the black tradition. For them, God has no other hands and feet than the church as a collective, prophetic community. As Lischer notes, “The power of Jesus is the church. The congregation is the laboratory for the love commanded by God and the instrument of his justice.”[4] Whereas the white tradition largely emphasizes the effect of the cross for individuals, King echoes the black tradition in his reluctance to talk about his individual suffering, but sees the cross first as the means of redeeming society, then the individual. As King said, “There are some who will still find the cross a stumbling block, and others consider it foolishness, but I am more convinced than ever before that it is the power of God unto social and individual salvation.”[5]


[1] While somewhat foreign to the black tradition, the use of psychological insight was permissible in that “if the Bible enrolls the whole world, no knowledge is too secular, advanced or obsolete for inclusion.” Lischer, 209.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr. “The American Dream.” A Testament of Hope. 215.

[3] Notice, again, the ease by which King weaves the biblical narrative and the American mythology together. Though not as overt in this case as with the exodus and exile imagery, there is a sense in which King understands that his audience is less concerned with historical-critical questions and more concerned with seeing themselves in the redemptive story.

[4] Lischer, 74.

[5] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Suffering and Faith.” A Testament of Hope. 41.

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Tom Fuerst is Associate Teaching Pastor and Associate Director of Community Life at Christ United Methodist Church of Memphis, TN.

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