A redemptive theology of work: Lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 15, 2018

Many have endeavored to undertake an analysis of various aspects of the theology of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although, much has been written on Dr. King’s moral philosophy and his doctrines of justice, surprisingly very little has been said about his robust theology of work and labor.

Growing up in an African-American Christian home, I was privileged to learn about the deep connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the predominantly black church. I was reminded faithfully by my parents that he wasn’t just “Dr. King,” he was “Rev. Dr. King.” These stories shaped a narrative in my mind that led me to give almost sole credit to the church for birthing, nurturing, and sustaining Dr. King’s civil rights ministry.

However, thanks in large part to Professor Michael Honey from the University of Washington-Tacoma, I have been forced to revisit some of my assumptions and to develop a more nuanced understanding of Dr. King and the movement he led.

All laborers have dignity

In the book All Labor Has Dignity, Honey painstakingly gathered a vast number of King’s speeches and writings on the subject of work and labor. He celebrated the dignity of all laborers, from the meat packers of the old UPWA (United Packinghouse Workers of America) to the Southern sanitation workers whose struggle and strike led him to Memphis in 1968—and ultimately led to his assassination.

Labor union members across the country were some of King’s most passionate partners and consistently comprised his audiences. He saw their work as vital for the flourishing of the nation and wanted the world to see their value and affirm the humanity of all laborers, not just those with the “big” jobs or white-collar positions.

Reading Honey’s comprehensive and masterful work has led me to two conclusions. The first is that the Civil Rights Movement was as much a product of King’s theology of work as it was of his relationship to the local church. Although, the church rightfully receives much of the credit for birthing and nurturing the Civil Rights Movement, an honest assessment must lead to an equal acknowledgement of the significant contribution of America’s Labor movement.

Secondly, King held strongly to the conviction that a proper understanding of God’s purpose in work and labor is central to a Christian vision of the human person, or what is classically called anthropology.     

Today’s need for a theology of work

King believed that the church in America was desperately longing for a strong, clear, and redemptive theology of work. Today, the hunger for a gospel-centered understanding of labor is just as real. Millennials, in particular, are searching for a purpose in their labor beyond a paycheck. Cynicism still exists among those who do physical, low-wage work as their primary occupation because of the sense of being devalued by society.

The dignity of work seems to be threatened consistently by corporate corruption, municipal bankruptcies, a culture of hyper-materialism, and the ever-looming danger of unchecked technology and automation. Christ-followers have not been exempt from the effects of these cultural forces. And pastors have struggled to provide a full-bodied response to the economic complexities that shape our vision of work.

Those of us who lead congregations should be aware of the enormous Sunday to Monday gulf that exist in the minds of our members. Far too many lack any significant vision for the connection of their work to their worship. This reality threatens the relevance of the church in the hearts of those who need biblical wisdom for life beyond Sunday morning. If Christ is Lord of all, then surely he has something essential and eternal to say about our work and how our labor can bring him glory.  The church’s ability to maintain a cohesive and comprehensive Christian worldview is in serious jeopardy when we neglect such an important area as a theology of work.

If Christ is Lord of all, then surely he has something essential and eternal to say about our work and how our labor can bring him glory.

Five pillars for a Christian view of labor

It is time for us to reconsider the rich theology of work presented to us by King. There are five enduring pillars upon which his understanding of a Christian view of labor stood:

  1. Every human being has intrinsic value and should be treated as such.
  2. All labor has dignity, from white-collar jobs to low-wage labor.
  3. The purpose of work is to serve humanity and to fulfill the second Great Commandment of loving our neighbor.  
  4. The key to a flourishing economy is the celebration and humane treatment of every laborer and the work they produce.
  5. To honor the worker is to honor God, and to dishonor the worker is to dishonor God and to provoke his wrath in judgement toward our nation.

King’s doctrine of labor has the power to produce a redemptive economy. His theology of work, if embraced, can restore meaning to even the most menial job, and at the same time, ground the work of the most powerful CEO in a broader Kingdom-context than simply being motivated by greater corporate profits. King espoused the wisdom of a “triple bottom line” economy before the concept was coined or popularized. He knew that, ultimately, a company would maximize it’s value by remaining committed to social, environmental, and financial profitability.

This only happens when we realize the biblical virtue that all labor has dignity. King would not rest until the lowliest worker’s humanity was affirmed and they had obtained a glorious vision of the value of their labor in the eyes of God. In many ways, King’s theology of work can be summarized in his most poetic statement about a Christian view of labor:

“If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well.”

May we all encourage one another to work and to think about our work—whatever the task—in such a way.

Editor’s note: Racial unity is a gospel issue and all the more urgent 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. Join the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition at a special event, “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop,” taking place April 4, 2018, in Memphis, Tenn. Key speakers include Russell Moore, Benjamin Watson, John Piper, Jackie Hill-Perry, Matt Chandler, Eric Mason and many others. Learn more here.

Chris Brooks

Chris Brooks is the senior pastor of Evangel Ministries, a thriving 1600-member church in the heart of Detroit. Chris is also a Dean at Moody Theological Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. A popular Detroit radio host since 2005, Chris is author of Kingdom Dreaming and Urban Apologetics. He graduated from Michigan State University with a … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24