In honor & celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work today, I thought I’d dig up some of his influences. Everyone is aware of Gandhi’s impact on King, I think, but less known is that the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr was also an influence. Niebuhr is sometimes credited with the Serenity Prayer even though there are versions of it that existed before his time; he may only have put it into the form we know now. King himself best expresses how Niebuhr influenced him:
“Moreover, Niebuhr has extraordinary insight into human nature, especially the behavior of nations and social groups. He is keenly aware of the complexity of human motives and of the relation between morality and power. His theology is a persistent reminder of the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence. These elements in Niebuhr’s thinking helped me to recognize the illusions of a superficial optimism concerning human nature and the dangers of a false idealism. While I still believed in man’s potential for good, Niebuhr made me realize his potential for evil as well. Moreover, Niebuhr helped me to recognize the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil.”
To demonstrate one aspect of what King is referring to, Niebuhr once wrote:
“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
That said, it was Niebuhr’s thinking on both pacificism & justice that helped King fine-tune his singular response to injustice – and for that we’re all thankful.