Martin Luther King Jr., a heavy hitter in the historic league of radical voices for racial justice, voices that white people love to echo from pulpits, political stumps, and social media platforms. This article being case and point. However, I, a white scholar and pastor hope to amplify the King’s speech authentically and redemptively. King’s sermons were prophetic speeches that were socially and theologically filled with vivid imagination of a new world built upon reconciliation of all people. On May 17, 1956, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, King delivers the sermon, “Death of Evil upon the Seashore,” proclaiming the fundamental core a black preaching, liberation, with a powerful twist of truth on salvation.
In his research on Martin Luther King Jr., scholar Sunggu Yang illuminates how “King realizes and propagates the God of cosmic reconciliation manifested through(out) the universe” (Yang, 2019). This cosmic reconciliation is rooted in the homiletic world of King’s preaching specifically when he draws upon the Exodus story. There is a long history and tradition within the black church that connects the Israelite Exodus story to the liberation of black people in the United States. With this said, the correlation between White America and Ancient Egypt becomes a pivotal preaching illustration in black pulpits following the Civil War and throughout the twentieth century. Even today, black preachers parallel the evils of ancient Egypt’s brutal oppression and enslavement of the Hebrew people to the continual evils of white America’s violent oppression and enslavement of African Americans.
However, up until the mid-twentieth century, proclamation of salvation in the black Exodus story for white Americans was practically non-existent in black pulpits. It was the sermons of Martin Luther King Jr. that proliferated the possibility of God’s salvation and liberation for both sides, the oppressed and the oppressor. A new narrative was proclaimed in the King’s speech creating theological room for white people. For over a century, spiritual reconciliation of the individual soul of the oppressor was lumped together, enmeshed with the damnation of corrupt systems of Egyptian and American societies. The evil system of enslavement led to the belief the enslaver themselves were evil. However, King illuminates a key nuance in the traditional illustration of the Exodus story. The evildoer is not evil but rather “ignorant victims or unfortunate counter-slaves captured in the universal evil scheme.” There is not doubt that King believes the universal evil must be defeated but he is able to hold a difficult truth that the evil-performer could be freed and liberated. According to King, an exorcism of the cosmic evil must take place for there to be repentance and reconciliation.
This gospel truth, this good news, was and is still not received by many white Americans for two major issues. First, most white Americans do not see the evil within society which leads to the second issue. White Americans do not want to be seen as evildoers in need of repentance.
Erica Whitaker is the Associate Director of BSK’s Institute for Black Church Studies. Previously, Whitaker was the Senior Pastor of Buechel Park Baptist Church in Louisville, KY. Whitaker came to Louisville from Dallas, where she was a pastoral resident at Wilshire Baptist Church. She also has been a student minister, a minister of outreach and a chaplain. She is a member of Baptist News Global’s Board of Directors and serves on Kentucky Baptist Women in Ministry’s Advisory Council.