How MLK used the Bible

March 9th, 2015

“He's allowed me to go up to the mountain,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. “And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

These lines have a special poignancy since he would be shot the day after delivering this speech in Memphis on April 3rd. (You can read the whole text of his speech here.)

The fact is, though, Dr. King had never been to Mount Nebo in Jordan. He never visited Israel. How could someone who had never been to Israel say that he had seen the Promised Land?

Obviously, he was speaking metaphorically. He was doing the same thing African-Americans had been doing for centuries as they read the Bible and saw their own struggle for freedom and equal rights reflected in the liberation story of Exodus and the words of the prophets. More than fifty years after his speech, whenever this white preacher reads the story of the Exodus, I can’t help but read it through the lens of the struggle for civil rights and against apartheid all over the world. What is more, I can hardly imagine the mindset of white Christians who had been reading the Bible for 400 years without hearing it.

But they did read it. And they didn’t hear.

Preachers learn the difference between exegesis and eisegesis, between inductive and deductive Bible study. Proof texting, searching out passages that support our own ideas, is anathema. Our goal is to come to the text with open hearts and minds and to let the Word of God transform us. It’s a beautiful idea.

It’s also wrong. The fact is, no reading of Scripture is unbiased, and no one comes to the text without an interpretive lens, a hermeneutic strategy that helps us fit the words on the page into some meaningful construction. We can talk about the intent of the author, the historical situation, the context for the first audience, the theological implications, and finally the “so what,” the application to our lives today. These readings are always political, always loaded with social and personal opinion. Our privilege blinds us to some readings, the way white Christians were blind to the Exodus story for centuries. Our experiences open us to other readings. It’s one reason this collection of 66 books by many different authors continues to speak to us today.

I imagine when Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke those words, someone in the audience thought, “He’s proof-texting.” They may have considered him arrogant for assuming the mantle of Moses — plenty of his critics did. For many white Christians, the Exodus was a historical event, locked into a particular time in a particular place. It was the past. For Christians involved in the struggle for civil rights, it was a lived and present experience.

The fact is, the Bible is mostly silent about slavery and equal rights. There are plenty of passages that seem to contradict the struggle for liberation. Those who supported segregation and apartheid — who at one time were a majority — read the Bible in such a way that any Christian vision of liberation seemed like eisegesis, not exegesis.

Dr. King said, “I may not get there with you.” Would these words of Dr. King’s have such power if he hadn’t been killed the very next day? Would we hear them as prophetically? Does it change the way we read the Bible?

Philosophers of language call it “intertextuality.” It’s the way a text derives meaning from other texts or contexts. It happens all the time, though we are often not aware of it. We can’t read the story of Moses going up Mount Nebo and looking into the promised land without hearing Dr. King’s voice. Perhaps we can’t read the story of creation without thinking about recent news about climate change. We can’t read John 3:16 without seeing it plastered on posters at sporting events. We can’t read about the grapes of wrath in Revelation 14:19 without thinking about Steinbeck’s novel.

It’s vitally important that Christians learn how to read the Bible critically. We should be able to analyze context and pry open the text without fearing we are going to lose our faith when we learn, for example, that a biblical author borrowed a story from a pagan myth. Identifying and naming our interpretive lenses allows us to let the author speak for the author’s own self, instead of becoming a mouthpiece for our own opinions. Keeping that critical distance allows us a measure of intellectual credibility. We are open to alternative readings, although some readings may be better than others.

Yet it is just as important for us to leap into the intertext as well, to hear how God’s ongoing revelation through the church and through history changes how we read Scripture. So many white Christians totally missed the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit as history played out in front of their faces, as it continues to play out wherever people struggle for liberation and human rights. We miss hearing the struggle for women’s rights and the rejection of slut-shaming in the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. We miss hearing the struggle for LGBTQ inclusion in the story of the early church’s debate over circumcision in Acts 10-15, or hearing Peter’s prophetic words “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” We miss hearing prophetic words about how environmental destruction is tied to economic inequality in Ezekiel 34.

Are these proof texts? It depends on where you stand. In discussions of preaching, my colleagues often debate whether we should make the Bible relevant to culture or the culture relevant to the Bible. Dr. King didn’t struggle with this false distinction. For him, the biblical story was his story. May it be so for us.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at

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