Below, you’ll find an audio recording of our online seminar, “America Must Be Born Again”: The Radical Jesus and Martin Luther King, along with the text of the presentation. The seminar exposed the ways that the wealthy and powerful have sought to sanitize the revolutionary messages and ministries of both Jesus and Rev. Dr. King. Through a discussion of Biblical texts and historical research Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-director of the Kairos Center, showed how both men committed their lives to building a movement of the poor to transform sinful political and economic structures and establish justice on Earth.

“I know a man…He was born in an obscure village, the child of a poor peasant woman. And then he grew up in still another obscure village, where he worked as a carpenter until he was thirty years old…He didn’t have much. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never owned a house. He never went to college. He never visited a big city. He never went two hundred miles from where he was born. He did none of the usual things that the world would associate with greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. They called him a rabble-rouser. They called him a troublemaker. They said he was an agitator. He practiced civil disobedience; he broke injunctions. And so he was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial.”

These are the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from his Drum Major Instinct speech given just a few months before his assassination. We all know the civil rights leader Martin Luther King who led the March on Washington and helped get the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts passed. But fewer of us are familiar with the King who committed his last years to the eradication of poverty.

Martin Luther King spent the last year of his life making connections between racism, militarism, and poverty. His last crusade was the Poor People’s Campaign – he insisted what good is it to be able to sit at a lunch counter if you couldn’t afford to buy a hamburger. He took note of the poverty in Northern cities brought to light particularly in the 1965 Watts Rebellion and poverty in Appalachia portrayed through images in Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in 1965 and 1966. He wanted the nation to do something about this widespread poverty and called for a “revolution of values”.

The Poor People’s Campaign aimed to “save the soul of America”. It was an effort to unite poor people across racial and geographic lines to make a real war on poverty – with poor people at the lead – so things like the Vietnam War couldn’t turn the “War on Poverty” into a skirmish and resources could not be diverted away from those who really needed them. Central to King’s vision of a Poor People’s Campaign was massive civil disobedience in hospitals, welfare centers and governmental and corporate buildings until the needs of the poor were met.

Rev. Dr. King challenged “America must be born again” saying, “We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together. And you can’t get rid of one without getting rid of the other. Jesus confronted this problem of the inter-relatedness of evil one day, or rather it was one night. A big-shot came to him and he asked Jesus a question, what shall I do to be saved? Jesus didn’t get bogged down in a specific evil. He looked at Nicodemus, and he didn’t say now Nicodemus you must not drink liquor. He didn’t say Nicodemus you must not commit adultery. He didn’t say Nicodemus you must not lie. He didn’t say Nicodemus you must not steal. He said, Nicodemus you must be born again. In other words, Nicodemus, the whole structure of your life must be changed…Now that is what we are dealing with in America. Somebody must say to America, America if you have contempt for life, if you exploit human beings by seeing them as less than human, if you will treat human beings as a means to an end, you thingafy those human beings. And if you will thingafy persons, you will exploit them economically. And if you will exploit persons economically, you will abuse your military power to protect your economic investments and your economic exploitations. So what America must be told today is that she must be born again. The whole structure of American life must be changed.”

When brought to Marks, Mississippi in the Mississippi Delta in the poorest county in the United States in 1968 for a colleague’s funeral and toured around the town, King dropped to his knees and cried because of the deep-seated poverty he witnessed. He called a town hall meeting at Eudora AME Zion Church. From there, he determined to start the Mule Train to Washington, the central caravan of poor people that met up with caravans from all over the country at Resurrection City, a major Tent City on the Mall in Washington D.C.

This last year of King’s life, particularly his focus on building the Poor People’s Campaign, and his call to lift the load of poverty, actually parallels the last week (and the greater mission) of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. In an effort to honor Rev. Dr. King, in this online seminar I will explore the connection of the Last Year of King and the Last Week of Jesus. I believe we will perhaps find implications for our anti-poverty ministries today from the radical lives and legacies of King and Christ.

The larger purpose of this seminar in honor of MLK Day is to invite you to join us in “Re-Igniting the Poor People’s Campaign: Finishing the Unfinished Business of Martin Luther King Jr.” We believe King’s business is the business of Jesus Christ and that we are all called to take up this work. Let us therefore take seriously the theories and theologies of Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King Jr in an effort to live up to what they demand from their followers today.

What’s the connection between Martin Luther King, the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, Jesus and poor people organizing today? Let’s begin with looking at Jesus, particularly the last week of his activities that leads to his crucifixion as a rebel of the empire.

Perhaps a starting point is the ways that Jesus was contrasted with and opposed to Caesar, the emperor of Rome during Jesus’ lifetime; Jesus was called the same titles as the emperor, things like Lord, Son of God, Bearer of Peace, King of Kings, etc., even though Jesus was a poor peasant from Galilee who spent his time healing, teaching and organizing other poor peasants. Jesus was doing many of the same activities as the emperor and other political leaders of his day were supposed to – feeding the people, healing, exorcising diseases and demons, looking after the people, but Jesus’ meals were things like feeding the 5000 where lots of poor people shared a small amount of food and it was enough, and Jesus’ health care plan didn’t cost a thing. We could go on about these contrasts, but let’s look at a specific example – the entry into Jerusalem.

John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, leading historical Jesus scholars, talk about the last week of Jesus and the entry into Jerusalem in their book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem (2007). Jesus enters Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey – not a chariot, or even horse – that could be viewed as a parallel procession of Caesar’s imperial guard. There are two processions going on on Palm Sunday. Jesus is riding a mule, a lowly animal, mocking the procession of Roman Governor Pontius Pilate’s and King Herod’s military force that is entering Jerusalem to do crowd control and protest disciplining of the rowdy fisherpeople and farmers gathered in Jerusalem during Passover.

Once Jesus enters Jerusalem, he goes to the Temple to check things out. He returns to the temple on Monday and causes a scene there. (Rev. Barber of the Forward Together Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, calls this scene of turning over the tables the original Moral Monday.) I want to suggest that when Jesus stops the buying and selling going on in the Temple and pronouncing it as a den of robbers, a safehouse for people who are stealing and cheating the poor, he is doing civil disobedience.

Try to imagine the scene – the Jerusalem Temple is not just the religious center of Jerusalem but the economic and political center as well. The Temple is the central bank. It’s the place where the log of all the debts of the poor are kept. And it’s structured or controlled to fit into the hierarchical order of Roman society. In fact, there is a Roman security post at the top of the Temple and a guard on duty to watch and police who’s entering and exiting, who’s doing what. There is a place for everyone and everyone has their place in the Temple. Indeed, a sign was posted in the Temple that said that if a gentile crossed into the section reserved for Jews that this was punishable by death by the Roman police force. So when Jesus enters the Temple and turns over the tables of everyone who is buying and selling – this would have been quite the demonstration. To #shutitdown, thousands of people would have had to join Jesus’ public protest and action – that’s how big and busy the Temple was.

And it is both after his teachings and healings earlier in Mark (or Matthew) but especially these acts of civil disobedience where it is determined that Jesus must be crucified by the elites.

I want to say a word about crucifixion here as well. Crucifixion was the punishment reserved for revolutionaries, for insurrectionists against Rome. Common robbers and tax evaders were not crucified. Even murderers weren’t crucified. Political prisoners, social movement organizers, alternative kings or authorities were. So even if all we know about Jesus Christ was that he was crucified by Rome (and we know a whole lot more from our Holy Bible), then we know who Jesus was – a revolutionary leader who was deemed a threat to Rome’s status quo.

And this is where a parallel with King and the Poor People’s Campaign comes in. The last campaign and march that King participated in was the Memphis Sanitation workers strike. King was invited to and resolved to help lead this march. There weren’t two parallel marches in Memphis – instead, the imperial guard (Memphis police and National Guard) monitored the march and managed the crowd at this procession. But after the first sanitation workers strike march makes a big disturbance, a disruption to those in power, the surveillance of Martin Luther King and dampening his disruption of the status quo is furthered plotted as well.

And what we know about King and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign is that it starts in Marks, MS with a mule train. Marks is in the poorest county in the US in 1968 just like Galilee was one of the poorest places in the Roman Empire. Poor folks from Marks set off on mules/donkeys to enter Washington DC the political and economic and could we say religious center of the US, just like Jerusalem was the center of Judea within Rome. In fact, the Temple was one of the wonders of the world at this time. And when I bring my young kids to Washington DC, the Mall and all those imperial buildings inspire awe and wonder.

So imagine poor families coming into Washington DC on mules and donkeys – burdened down with their poor kids – entering the nation’s capitol to demand that they need food and health care and jobs that pay a decent wage. This scene of the Mule Train of the Poor People’s Campaign, in fact, should change the image all of us have in our minds of the “triumphal entry into Jerusalem” on Palm Sunday. This Easter season instead of thinking of Jesus riding in on some chariot with a donkey pulling it, where even though we know it’s a donkey and not a horse we still impose a grand and beautiful entrance, imagine poor families from the poorest part of our country clammering in on a mule, carrying the little that they have, desperate for a radical change in our nations priorities. If you think of the mule train and all those poor families from Marks joining poor families from other parts of the country in a raggedy protest in the nation’s capitol, it will be a lot closer to what Jesus was doing on Palm Sunday than what we normally think of.

And, what King proposed and the people did when they got to DC was set up a Resurrection City (notice the religious language). From this tent city, poor people of all races left every day to go protest and do massive civil disobedience in hospitals and the department of agriculture and other temples of our day. Despite King being killed before the Mule Train and Resurrection City, all of these that follow from his proposal of a Poor People’s Campaign were disruptive as well.

In order to draw the connection between Jesus and the Jesus movement and King and the Poor People’s Campaign even more, we should talk about King’s assassination, the abandonment of lots of King’s friends who were not really able to carry the Poor People’s Campaign to a successful conclusion, and a rebirth of that campaign by poor people nearly 50 years later (both people who have been fighting to end poverty from Marks for the past 50 years and poor people who are joining together to re-ignite the Poor People’s Campaign today).

Indeed, although not enough people discussed the unpopularity of Martin Luther King at his death this past week as we celebrated MLK Day, exactly one year before his assassination, the day after he preached his “Time to Break the Silence” sermon taking a public stance for the first time against the Vietnam War at The Riverside Church, 168 newspapers and organizations came out against him. (To me this sounds a little about the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus and his followers.) King’s critics said things like civil rights and peace don’t mix, that he was hurting the cause of Black people, that he had lost his power and spirit. Jesus’ followers denied that they ever knew him or challenged if he could save himself if he was the Son of God.

Not known to enough people, in 1999 the District Court of Tennessee actually found that all levels of US government were complicit in the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed there was a plot like I allude to above in the midst of the sanitation workers strike and before to discredit and isolate King. It seems from all of this, that such a great religious and political leader was killed because he was a threat to the status quo. And it sounds pretty similar to the situation with Jesus as well.

So the entry into Jerusalem and Memphis or Washington DC and the execution as a radical by the state are the beginning and end of that last week of Jesus Christ and last year of MLK, but what Jesus does in the middle there (and the parallels to Martin Luther King) that shows who he is and what he stands for – are perhaps what is most important for their followers today.

A particularly important biblical story for me that takes place in that last week is the story of the unnamed woman anointing Jesus. In Matthew 26, an unnamed woman appears at Simon the Leper’s house with a jar of very expensive ointment as Jesus and his disciples are gathered together.1The anointing is at Bethany for Matthew, Mark and John, but not Luke. In Matthew and Mark, the head is anointed; in Luke and John, it is Jesus’s feet. In John, Mary anoints; in Matthew and Mark the woman who anoints is unnamed; in Luke the woman is called “sinful.” In Matthew, the disciples are the ones who raise questions about the woman’s actions; in Mark it is some who were there; in John, it is Judas who raises the critique. In Matthew, the story has fewer historical details than Mark includes, placing the emphasis on the actions and discipleship of the anointing woman. See Ronald Thiemann, “The Unnamed Woman at Bethany,” Theology Today 44.2 (1987): 179-188.

This scene takes place in Bethany, meaning house of the poor in Hebrew, only a few miles from Jerusalem.2Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 756. While Jerusalem (and the temple in particular) may represent a place of wealth and power, Jesus and his followers are staying in a place of poverty and marginalization – echoing again the scene earlier with the donkey and his procession. This could be out of convenience and the fact that they do not have the resources to stay somewhere else. It is also an indication of who Jesus is and with whom he associates.3Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 94. Jesus is staying with Simon, the leper, in the “house of the poor”4Brian Capper writes that because semantically and etymologically Bethany can mean “House of the Poor” and based on some archaeological evidence of a poor house being built east of Jerusalem that Bethany may have come to be known as a “House of the Poor.” (Brian Capper, “Essene Community Houses and Jesus’ Early Community” in Jesus and Archaeology (ed. James H. Charlesworth; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2006), 472-502. because Jesus himself is concerned with the problems of the poor. The fact that Simon has leprosy may also mean that he is poor, would be considered ritually unclean, and is certainly not the type of person hosting and holding dinners for the Jewish high priests and Roman authorities in Jerusalem.5The fact that Simon has a house, however, means that although potentially poor or near poverty, he is not destitute.

In this scene in Matt 26, Jesus is reclining over a meal with his disciples.6Luzia Sutter Rehmann asserts that because of the poverty of Jesus and his followers, it is possible that they do not share food although they gather to recline and have fellowship. See Luzia Sutter Rehmann, “Olivenōl als Zündstoff: Die vier Salbungsgeschichten der Evangelien im Kontext des Judentums des Zweiten Tempels”, Lectio Difficilior 1, (2013): 1. Jesus shared an open commensality; he socialized and ate with all kinds of people, including lepers and women with unknown backgrounds.7Lepers and women are brought together in three miracle stories of Jesus in Matt 8:1-15 where Jesus heals a man with leprosy, a slave of a Centurion, and Peter’s mother. These healings and other ministry among the poor and marginalized are connected to Jesus’s anointing in this scene in part because of the role of Simon the leper and the unnamed woman. Jesus stood for a Kingdom/Empire/Realm of God that was challenging to the very foundations of the Roman Empire. He practiced a “radical egalitarianism” that included people of all classes, status, abilities, and so on. For this, Jesus was called ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ by his contemporaries. He asserted that God’s kingdom is made up of those completely expendable to and excluded from society: “In any situation of oppression, especially in those oblique, indirect, and systemic ones where injustice wears a mask of normalcy or even of necessity, the only ones who are innocent or blessed are those squeezed out deliberately as human junk from the system’s own evil operations. A contemporary equivalent: only the homeless are innocent.”8Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 62.

After she anoints Jesus, instead of acknowledging his imminent death or recognizing and celebrating the social critique implicit in anointing a poor person with a luxury item, the disciples chide the unnamed woman. They critique the woman for wasting (apōleia) the ointment (myron). They suggest that instead of breaking the alabaster jar (alabaster) and pouring out all the ointment, the woman should have kept it intact and sold (prathēnai) the item.

Jesus responds to the critique of this woman by his disciples with the phrase, “the poor will be with you always”. This line has been interpreted either to establish that God condones poverty or that although God condemns poverty, it is an unfortunate but unalterable reality of the human condition. For many people the fact that Jesus is the one saying this statement about the “poor” and that he uses the word “always” makes the meaning clear and unequivocal—they may not even know where this line falls in the biblical story or the context of the Gospel of Matthew or Mark but posit that this biblical statement establishes poverty as perpetual and inevitable.

But when Jesus says “the poor are with you always but you will not always have me” he is reminding his followers of the Deuteronomic Code and God’s admonition to forgive debts, release slaves, and be generous with one’s possessions. He’s reminding his followers that he is soon to be executed for his vision of God’s kingdom on earth and his practice of these very commandments, as demonstrated through his feedings and healings; his teachings on what to do about wealth and taxes; his disruption of the Temple; and his audacity to do all of this while being poor himself.

Matthew 26 portrays Jesus as passing many of the responsibilities of building a popular movement on to his disciples—other movement leaders—right before he is killed. In this reading of the Passion narrative, Jesus is a threat to Rome because of what he stood for and also his role in developing leaders committed to his same vision. Jesus is himself poor; his disciples are also poor. His statement is not about pitting the poor against Jesus or even about pitting the poor Jesus against other poor people. Instead, Jesus is trying to suggest his significant role and the role of the disciples in the ending of everyone’s poverty. He reaches back to the Hebrew Scriptures for their prophetic critique and lessons. He reminds his disciples that with his impending death, they are charged with carrying on his legacy.

This argument is backed up through the grammatical structure of his critique. There is no future prediction in his statement. The verbs used are not in the future tense. The disciples “have” the poor around (the verb used here is echete meaning “you have” in the present tense); this is among whom the Jesus-movement is based. But time is running out for Jesus (ou pantōtē echētē meaning “you do not always have”). His disciples should understand what needs to be done to end poverty and to follow Jesus’s vision for the realization of the Deuteronomic code: the release of slaves, forgiveness of debts, and generosity in the face of economic hardship. They too must become popular movement leaders, despite their own poverty and seeming powerlessness.

Willie Baptist, Poverty Initiative Scholar-in-Residence and Coordinator of Poverty Scholarship and Leadership Development for the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice, and a mentor of mine for over 20 years, asserts an additional interpretation of Matthew 26. He suggests that, in fact, Rev. Dr. King was thinking about the passage “the poor will be with you always” when he made this statement about “true compassion”.

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…and say ‘This is not just.’”9Martin Luther King Jr., “A Time to Break the Silence”, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. ed. James M. Washington; New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 231-244.

Baptist says that Jesus critiques the disciples’ concern over selling the ointment and argues that giving the money to the poor is like “flinging a coin to a beggar.” He continues that this woman’s act of anointing, recognizing, and honoring Jesus is a celebration of someone whose words and actions stand for the restructuring the “edifice which produces beggars.” He connects flinging a coin to a beggar with the establishment of potter’s field for the poor with the money discarded by the Temple elites when Judas returns Jesus’s blood money. Indeed, juxtaposing Matt 26 and the Martin Luther King Jr. text, connecting MLK and Jesus themselves, helps us to bring forth a new liberationist reading of this passage and the whole last week of Jesus and last year of Rev. Dr. King.

Rather than simply accepting the only response to poverty are band-aid solutions with no critique of economic systems and structures that hurt communities and destroy lives, Dr. King’s quote reminds us, especially those of us who are Christian, that God requires justice and love for all and judges that which impoverishes and tramples on God’s children. Dr. King’s quote suggests that while helping individuals is necessary, the only true help for individuals is bettering all of society. This quote and others from Rev. Dr. King insist that poverty should and could be ended with the organized poor leading the way.

Such a harsh critique of charity in this quote and the others I’ve read above may come as a surprise from Rev. Dr King. Dr. King’s quotes are regularly used to justify charity; the call of what people should do to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., in fact, is to do community service on MLK day oftentimes backed up with the quote from Dr. King, “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve”. And when thinking about the experts on poverty alleviation and eradication, our society turns to advocates and service providers for the poor because they seem to be the ones thinking about the needs of the poor. For anyone who is poor themselves or spends lots of time with poor people, meeting the immediate needs of the poor is a very needed and important act and meeting these needs requires donations of time and money from those more fortunate. Indeed, the follow up to painting schools and planting community gardens in honor of MLK Day is to make money in order to be able to donate generously to programs that help the poor – all inspired by Rev. Dr. King.

But Dr. King’s quote on true compassion talks about an edifice, a structure, that produces beggars much like the revolution of values that he suggests in his sermon about Nicodemus and America being born again. He calls out against people being constantly beaten and robbed on life’s highways. He uses a biblical story that is familiar to many – the story of the Good Samaritan – to say that charity and community service are not sufficient. The story of the Good Samaritan is a Christian favorite. In this story regular people from the “helping professions” leave a dying man on the road but the unlikely, maybe even ungodly, Samaritan – a religious outsider – comes to the man’s rescue. The Samaritan cares for him, pays for his recovery costs, makes sure that someone continues to look after him. But Rev. Dr. King uses this biblical story to actually critique charity and service and say that although helping beggars on life’s roadside is important, a more systemic response is necessary.

His critique of this structure (that includes people earning money in order to be able to donate to the poor or to pay others to care for those in need) raises questions about a system where people have to buy their very necessities or where people’s care is not a right for all.

Indeed, a great quote from Dr. King on this is, “One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice, which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?’ These are the questions that must be asked.”

The act of buying and selling and adhering to the dominant economic systems to Dr. King or for Jesus in the story from Matthew 26 when the disciples suggest that the unnamed woman should have sold the ointment used to anoint Jesus and given the proceeds to the poor, may be a small building block in maintaining the very structure that excludes and exploits the poor from the economy. These structures, the whole Jericho road of our day, confines the vast majority of inhabitants of this earth to dispossession and misery. Jesus speaks out against the buying and selling of commodities and the bodies and souls of human beings. Dr. King suggests that structural transformation is the true solution to poverty and oppression – band-aids, charity, and buying into a system that produces poverty is ineffective and insufficient – in fact, they may be part of the problem.

And King’s critique of charity is in line with a longer and broader religious critique of impoverishment and charity. Jesus, Mohammad, the Hebrew prophets critique the people saying they are too narrowly focused on just poor people in their midst and on ameliorating poverty rather than ending it. Jesus and King show that the people fall back on the hegemonic stance of the empires of their day and propose “solutions” to poverty that will just make it worse. They critique their followers who suggest selling and participating in the dominant oppressive economic system and assisting the poor through charity and patronage. In sum, their prophetic critique is that we do not stand up and commit themselves to ending poverty in the way that King has and calls others around him to do. We cannot afford to ignore Rev. Dr. King’s call to be compassionate, to care for God’s people, to restructure the edifice that produces beggars and billionaires in our society and world today. This is King’s charge. This is why he called for a Poor People’s Campaign. This is what Jesus was crucified for. May we heed their call. Thank you.

This seminar was based on a Bible study series produced by the Kairos Center, “The Last Week of Jesus Christ and the Last Year of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” which you can read and download here. The Bible study series is drawn from our book, “A New and Unsettling Force,” which you can learn more about here.

The painting at the top is by Zambian artist Emmanuel Nsama

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