The Prophetic Community and Public Pain: The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

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This is one part of an eight part series. Read the most recent here:

The Prophet, Psychology, and Memory: The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
The Prophet, Mythology, and Memory: The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
A Prophet on the Periphery: The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
Prophet, Preacher, King: The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

For Brueggemann, the prophetic community is also a subcommunity with an available, expressed sense of pain owned and recited as a social reality, visibly acknowledged in a public way, and understood as unbearable for the long term.

This reality of public pain within the black community is the principal reason King Jr. should not be seen primarily apart from his Black Christian heritage.

Within the preaching tradition of African Americans existed two movements of hope. Richard Lischer calls them the Sustainers and the Reformers.[1] These movements offered opposite, but not opposing, opportunities for opposition to and survival within the oppressive culture. The Sustainers, true to their name, “ministered to the spiritual needs of slaved and segregated people but never attempted to revolutionize the conditions under which they lived.”[2]  They framed their theological program in terms of eschatological imagery, injecting hope thereby into a people who had their identity ingrained in them chiefly by the injustices perpetuated against them. Their ultimate longing was for a day when those who promote exclusion and imprison truth in injustice would be exposed and defeated.

King, in agreement with Marx, would later come to see the Sustainers as offering an opiate to pacify the people in prospect of a later day. However, he often drew on the movement in his prophetic ministry primarily because it provided the rhetorical resources for envisioning an alternative, though eschatological, reality.

The Reformers, according to Lischer, contrasted with the Sustainers, had a clear program of revolution, and King drew most readily from this tradition. Contrary to the Sustainer’s eschatological longings, the Reformers used resourcefulness and resilience in subverting the dominant social realities of racism in order to create a this-worldly society of equal rights and emancipation.

The Reformers encouraged their congregations “to see God and Jesus in their own image, as opposed to seeing God as a fine-looking, symmetrical, and ornamented white man.”[3] Contrary to the liberal sentiments that would influence much of King’s theology, the Reformers would not allow him or anyone else to place their faith in the private, subjective sector of reality. Private religion could never work because oppression and injustice did not hide in the private sectors of our hearts, but in the public arena of our politics.

Though King drew from both of these traditions, he mined the tradition of the Reformers the most, according to Lischer. “Before he read academic theology, he had already internalized a set of strategies—pastoral, theological, and prophetic—for ministry in a hostile land.”[4] He internalized the values of a shamed and suffering people and stirred that suffering into a call for nothing short of insurrection. But he accomplished this with a Jeremiah-like prophetic heart that lamented not only over the misery of the black community, but the very destruction of the white man’s very humanity in his acts of oppression and injustice. His hope was far from an opiate; it was accompanied by solemn lament.


[1]Richard Lischer, The Preacher King, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 28.

[2] Lischer, 28.

[3] E. K. Bailey and Warren Wiersbe. Preaching in Black and White, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 17.

[4] Lischer, 29.

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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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