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

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.

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