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Mr. President: Let King's Bible Go!

01/16/2013 03:30 pm ET | Updated Mar 18, 2013

President Barack Obama will take the oath of office for his second term with his hand placed on a Bible once owned by Martin Luther King, Jr. It would be far better for the president and all political leaders to give expression, in word and deed, to the Bible in which King believed. King's Bible is not an ornament for displaying; it is a living document that calls us to embrace nonviolence, reconciliation, and economic justice for all.

While a graduate student at Boston University, King penned a paper in which he argued for understanding "the Bible as both the Word of God and the Word of Man." This was his creative attempt to steer a middle course between liberal biblical criticism, which defined scripture as merely a human product, and orthodox views of scripture as God's self-revelation.

King favored reading the Bible critically. Because he saw it as a human work that reflected the biases of its many authors, he was a proponent of using other sources -- tradition, reason, and experience -- to critique the Bible and map out faithful living for the modern age. At the same time, however, he insisted on understanding at least parts of the Bible as "a personal word from a living God."

So how did he distinguish between the sacred and the profane in the Bible?

By appealing to Jesus.

But not the fundamentalist and evangelical Jesus who demands that you come to the altar, drop to your knees, pray a sinner's prayer of repentance, and accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. King was no Billy Graham. Or Rick Warren. Or Joel Osteen.

King's Jesus was the prophet divinely anointed "to bring good news to the poor... to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

The radical Jesus who aligned himself with those on the margins of society, rewarding those who cared for "the least" -- the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned -- while sending to "the eternal flames" those who ignored them.

The nonviolent Jesus who said, "If anyone strikes you, turn the other cheek." Who demanded that his followers love and pray for their enemies, all of them. Who told his disciple that those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

And, yes, the servant Jesus who refused to be king.

This was King's Jesus -- the barrier breaker, the proponent of the poor, the Prince of Peace. And this Jesus was the hermeneutical tool King used for distinguishing between the sacred and the profane in the Bible. Profane parts of the Bible embrace slavery, depict wealth as a sign of God's blessing, and celebrate God as a murderous thug. Inspired parts of the Bible suggest that "all are one," rail against rich folks who ignore the poor, and honor the Prince of Peace.

The Bible was King's favorite weapon, and he often wielded it to criticize unbiblical politicians, especially those who denied human rights to African-Americans, propped up a capitalism that ran roughshod over the poor, and employed force and violence to oppress everyday U.S. citizens and Vietnamese peasants.

Near the end of his life, with the Vietnam War in mind, King used the Bible to draw the sharpest of contrasts between Jesus' call to service and our country's desire to rule the world. King's words seem especially relevant as we continue to engage in an imperialistic war on terror:

[Jesus] said in substance, 'Oh, I see you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. ... Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.

At last, King's Bible is ultimately about nonviolent love for one another. It could never be used to advance policies that deny human rights to all. Or to legitimate economic policies that favor the rich at the expense of the poor. Or to legitimize any form of violence against our enemies, even terrorists intent on killing us.

That last point, let alone the others, packs a punch: However richly symbolic his action, the president is wrong to use King's Bible for taking an oath to be Commander-in-Chief of armed forces that kill our enemies rather than loving them.

Mr. President: Let King's Bible go.