"It is ironic, yet inescapably true that the greatest Christian of the modern world was a man who never embraced Christianity."
--Martin Luther King, Jr., 1962
Martin Luther King, Jr. was referring to Mohandas K. Gandhi in this quote. King's remarkable ability to transcend religious sectarianism enabled him to deliver a universal message through the language of Christianity. Although he had deeply rooted Baptist religious beliefs, King was similar to Gandhi in his rejection of religious intolerance and fundamentalist understandings of religious texts.
In the statement above, King was responding to the criticisms he received from some Christian supporters who were disturbed when he agreed to serve as honorary chairman of the Gandhi Society, which had been established in New York to educate Americans about King's civil rights activities.
When Did King First Embrace the Preaching of Gandhi?
Scholars believe King's strong kinship with the principles of Gandhi may have began on a Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia, where in 1948, he attended a lecture by Dr. Mordecai Johnson, who discussed the teachings of the leader of India's non-violent, non-cooperative independence.
Gregg Blakely states in Peace Magazine ...
"After hearing Dr. Johnson speak about Gandhi, Martin Luther King became extremely enthused about the Mahatma's ideas. He felt compelled to expand his knowledge of Gandhi, and after reading a number of his books, began to lose his skepticism about the power of love. King himself states in Stride Toward Freedom, "Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale." King continues, saying, "It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking. ...I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom."
"It was Gandhi's doctrine of satyagraha ("truth force") which had the most powerful influence on King. At the time, however, King was still in the seminary and lacked a clear idea about how it might be applied effectively. Still, the whole idea of satyagraha developed a special meaning to him.
"For King, agape was at the heart of the teachings of Jesus. After discovering Gandhi's thought, King felt he had found the key by which oppressed people could unlock social protest. Gandhism was a way to fight the oppression of black Americans - a method that was consistent with the Christian ethic of love. Martin Luther King now saw that Gandhi proposed a method by which Jesus' concept of Christian love could be set to work on the problems of those fighting to achieve freedom and justice."
(Gregg Blakely. "The Formative Influences on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr."
Peace Magazine. April-June, 2001)
King began thinking about love as an engine for social change. Then, he realized nonviolence was a cohesive force for those within the black struggle. The Gandhian idea of the "Beloved Community" went on to become the central goal of King's spiritual campaign, for he now believed in nonviolence as a viable option for black Americans. The nonviolent civil rights movement was born.
What if Martin Luther King, Jr. had not opened his mind and expanded his Baptist Christian views about world religion and its new application to the civil rights movement? What if he had stood rigid in his strong beliefs, refusing to change his stance and modifying the wisdom of Gandhi to fight racism in America?
You know the answer to these questions already. Our country would have been robbed of the incredible accomplishments of one of the greatest leaders of history had not King committed himself to truth and to peaceful resistance. He was able to incorporate true religious understandings of other world faiths in parallels with his own Christian beliefs. His open-minded approach proved to be universally respected and ultimately accepted as proof of the power of love.
What are the implications for us today, more than a half century after Dr. King spoke words that rocked the world of many Christian fundamentalists? I believe denominations and religions must be open to working together to solve social problems. Despite differences in interpretation and in principles, all worthwhile faiths ground their hopes and dreams in unconditional love. In order to compromise and realize full potential, the faithful must follow their commitment to love all, above all.
In many ways we are experiencing a hateful uprising of prejudice in America. Recent tragedies in Ferguson and in New York have fanned the flames of white and black bigotry. Evil ISIS terrorists in Iraq and in France have caused death and disorder that threaten a continuous religious war. In response, citizens of the United States seem increasingly unsure of their own freedoms and alliances.
As irresponsible news media spin predictable responses to incite the anger of their intended audiences, divisions of thought grow wider and wider. And, no respected leader seems capable of mending problems through bipartisan guidance.
Wouldn't it be wonderful to see love inspire all faith-based communities -- Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and others -- to find benefit in a peaceful, tolerant human existence? That could all begin by the many faiths in America finding common ground and celebrating a new companionship. Stagnant minds lose the ability to create new and better societies.
"The greatest Christian of the modern world was Mohandas K. Gandhi," stated Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1962. It was a surprising, direct statement based on contradiction but inspired by an incredible truth supported by the power of love. For this belief, King gave his life in 1968 just as Gandhi had before him in 1948. These are two of the greatest leaders the world has ever known forever tied in spirit and in mind.
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
THOUGH love repine, and reason chafe,
There came a voice without reply,—
"'T is man's perdition to be safe,
When for the truth he ought to die."