Breaking the Backbone of Oppressive Power: Martin Luther King, Jr., the State, and the Wrath of God

Thomas P. Dixon
Princeton Theological Seminary[1]

During the United States Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. repeatedly brought the Christian scriptures into the public square to oppose oppression and inspire resistance, and he proved to be a figure in whom the lines between “public” and “religious” were consistently and intentionally blurred.  In this faith-fueled fight for social and political change, King believed God’s justice to include God’s judgment, some of which would be carried out both by and against the state, and King repeatedly envisioned this justice and judgment through pointed appropriations of scriptural texts to his own circumstances.  Many know King’s frequent citation of Amos 5 in his hopeful call to work “until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream,” but fewer recall his use of Psalm 46 as a warning to unjust leaders that God would “rise up and break the backbone” of their power.

This essay will explore how Dr. King employs Scripture in public speeches and writings to re-contextualize texts from across the scriptural canon and redirect their address to the specific circumstances of the struggle for civil rights.  In doing so, he binds his own world to that of Scripture, but he remains remarkably sensitive to the context of his chosen texts.  These texts serve to support King’s contention, on the one hand, that the just state was called to enact God’s judgment by punishing oppressive rulers who opposed divine justice, and, on the other hand, that the unjust state itself would be punished by God through the geo-political sphere.  Both punishment of and protest against injustice, however, were to have a common goal of reform and reconciliation.  Not only does Scripture enjoin the state’s just punishment of oppression, but for King it also declares that such measures must lead not to mere retaliation but to a “beloved community” that anticipates the coming kingdom of God.

In Strength to Love, King states that “the Bible expresses…[God’s] toughmindedness in his justice and wrath and his tenderheartedness in his love and grace.”  It is in this toughminded justice that God “punished Israel for her wayward deeds,”[2]  and King extends this truth to the contemporary geo-political world:  “When slumbering giants of injustice emerge in the earth, we need to know that there is a God of power who can cut them down like the grass and leave them withering like the green herb.”[3]  First, therefore, King appeals to a broad scriptural theme – God’s punishment of Israel – to associate the political powers of his own day with the Israel of Scripture, and this association is implicitly justified through the belief that the God who disciplined Israel is the same God who rules over the nations today.  Secondly, King gets more specific when he envisions the earth’s unjust powers as mere grass that withers before God’s power of just wrath.  This image of fading grass most directly alludes to Psalm 37:2 (although similar pictures appear frequently in the psalms).  This is no mere proof-text, however, as the context of Ps 37:2 fits King’s purposes perfectly:  the previous verse begins the psalm by encouraging the hearers not to fret on account of evildoers.  (A similar context surrounds the symbol of withering grass in Ps 129:6.)  Both for the psalmist and for King, the use of this image encourages oppressed hearers and threatens oppressive powers with the prophetic claim that these putative rulers will shrivel before the Lord’s judgment.

In light of such scriptural imagery, King believed God’s wrath to include present punishment of sin, and he argued that the just state would perform some of this judgment.  King viewed the state as sinful but as nonetheless an instrument of God—particularly the Christian state, which he saw the United States to be, at least in potential or in responsibility. In some places King insists that Christian love may require coercion, by a police force or even by nations for the sake of other oppressed nations.[4]  In order to actualize the warning against those deserving of punishment, King marshals texts of judgment.  Michael G. Long describes how King believed in two arms of divine justice:  protecting the needy and punishing oppressive lawbreakers, the latter meaning that the just state was called to carry out God’s judgment by punishing sinners who opposed divine justice.[5]  In support, Long cites King’s speech at the first mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association, at Holt Street Baptist Church, in which King asserts that “we are only using the tools of justice. Not only are we using the tools of persuasion, but we’ve come to see that we’ve got to use the tools of coercion.  Not only is this thing a process of education, but it is also a process of legislation.”[6]  For King, such responsibility coheres with scriptural images of God’s workings with Israel and other nations.

Undergirding this call for action is King’s insistence that God is not only the God who says “I love you, Israel,” but also the one who “stands up before nations and said: ‘Be still and know that I am God, that if you don’t obey me I will break the backbone of your power and slap you out of the orbits of your international and national relationships.”[7]  One may think that this is an odd and perhaps misleading riff on Psalm 46:10 (46:11 MT), which reads, “Be still and know that I am God.  I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”  A look at the surrounding verses of the psalm, however, reveals that the riff holds the theme: the psalm is describing God’s battle with the earth and its powers.  It begins by stating that God is a refuge in trouble, and this trouble is further illustrated by the picture of the earth giving way and of the mountains trembling as they are thrown into the roaring sea (vv. 1-3).  Such a violent sea is then sharply contrasted with the river that makes glad the city of God:  God protects the city from being shaken when the nations rage and kingdoms shake, as God can melt the earth with his voice; the Lord of the armies is a fortress (vv.4-7).  Immediately preceding v.10, the psalmist highlights those strokes of war with which the Lord has brought desolation to the earth:  breaking the bow, snapping the spear, burning the chariots with fire.  This is the context in which God says, “Be still, and know that I am God.  I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”  The setting is one of battle against the earth’s powers, and the exaltation of the Lord of armies among the nations most certainly consists of crushing their forces.  Not only does King’s extension of verse 10 fit the thrust of the psalm, therefore, but his particular image of “breaking the backbone of power” also utilizes the psalm’s martial imagery to convey that the earthly weapons of bow and spear are the backbone of power for nations that God can render desolate.  With this one of King’s favorite images (see below), he maintains the tenor of this psalm when he both threatens the powers of his own day with judgment like that described in Ps. 46 and encourages his hearers with hope for God-wrought justice.  Both judgment and justice come from the same God of the scriptures, a fact which sheds light on King’s most famous use of a biblical text.

With this close tie between judgment and justice in mind, King’s famous and frequent citation of Amos 5:24—“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream”—suggests not merely anticipation of the time after reconciliation, but perhaps also the process of chastening the oppressor on the road to this reconciliation.  This may be implied in “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” in which King rebukes those who oppose integration, making a telling appeal to Amos 5:24 to do so:  “Let them know that in standing against integration, they are not only standing against the noble precepts of your democracy, but also against the eternal edicts of God himself. Yes America, there is still the need for an Amos to cry out to the nation: ‘Let judgment roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.’”  It is noteworthy that here King says let judgment instead of let justice roll down.  Both English words translate the underlying Hebrew mishpat, as King well knew.[8]  King’s decision to render mishpat as “judgment” in this context accentuates the threatening facet of this verse, which fits the hortatory and rebuking tone of this section of “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.”  This is not to say, however, that when King renders mishpat as “justice” (as he more often does), he envisions only hope and no threat of judgment.  Keith D. Miller argues that King selectively cites this more hopeful verse without utilizing other, darker scenes of judgment in Amos,[9] but this may reveal a false dichotomy.  As illustrated above in King’s use of Ps. 46:10, justice and judgment can be two sides of the same coin.  Even more clearly, this allusion in “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” indicates that King was aware of the twofold meaning of mishpat as both judgment and justice.  For him Amos 5:24 is not merely hopeful but rather contains its own inherent threat, and he accentuates either the hopeful or threatening tone based on his rhetorical needs.  This twofold function for King is much in line not only with Ps 46 and Amos but also with other promises for justice throughout Scripture, particularly in a certain passage from Revelation.

Another favorite biblical reference of King’s when speaking of God’s judgment is the book of Revelation, to which he frequently alludes by way of a well-known hymn.  In speeches inside and outside of the church walls, King often appeals to Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” in particular the first verse, which is driven by imagery of God’s coming judgment from Revelation, especially Rev 19:15.  The biblical text speaks of the Lamb, the King of Kings, as follows:  “From his mouth proceeds a sharp sword with which to strike the nations [cf. Ps. 46:10], and he will shepherd them with a rod of iron, and he will tread the winepress of the wine of the furious wrath of God the Almighty.”  In front of the state capital in Montgomery, after the march from Selma (March 25, 1965), King ends his speech, “Our God is Marching On,” with a hopeful vision of God’s just judgment coming, concluding with lyrics from “Battle Hymn of the Republic”:

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Yes, sir)
How long? Not long, (Not long) because:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; (Yes, sir)
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; (Yes)
He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; (Yes, sir)
His truth is marching on. (Yes, sir)[10]

Once again, King appropriates Scripture (here via a hymn) to situate his own surroundings in the biblical world, for the primary purpose of casting a vision of the righteous judgment of God that rules over the nations.  As in Ps. 46 and Amos 5, this vision of judgment contains both a threat of judgment towards unjust leaders and a promise of justice for sufferers.

For King, these acts of God’s just judgment are neither limited to the future nor confined within the walls of the church.  King speaks Scripture to proclaim that God works outside the walls of the church in judgment for the establishment of justice, even when—or expressly when—the church does not live up to its calling.  Here King makes another appeal to Ps. 46:10:

God comes in the picture even when the Church won’t take a stand. God has injected a principle in this universe. God has said that all men must respect the dignity and worth of all human personality, “And if you don’t do that, I will take charge.” It seems this morning that I can hear God speaking. I can hear Him speaking throughout the universe, saying, “‘Be still, and know that I am God.’  And if you don’t stop, if you don’t straighten up, if you don’t stop exploiting people, I’m going to rise up and break the backbone of your power.  And your power will be no more![11]

He goes on to speak of the exploitation of the British Empire, which caused God to take a stand against them.[12]  God’s “taking a stand” for King often means God’s doing so through other worldly, political powers, meaning that King believed both that the just state would carry out God’s just judgment, and also that the unjust state would be the object of God’s judgment.[13]  After mentioning the fall of the British Empire, King makes another allusion to “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” uniting his and his hearers’ struggle against segregation with the struggles experienced by the audience of John of Patmos.  King does not always continue to “Battle Hymn’s”  second line,[14] but here he does, following it to the image of the trampling of the grapes of wrath in order to bolster the confidence of those struggling against the injustice that God will ultimately thwart:

And I say to you this morning, my friends, rise up and know that as you struggle for justice, you do not struggle alone. But God struggles with you. And He is working every day. Somehow I can look out, I can look out across the seas and across the universe, and cry out, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.  He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”  Then I think about it because His truth is marching on, and I can sing another chorus: “Hallelujah, glory hallelujah! His truth is marching on.”[15]

Whatever actions of just judgment were to be carried out by the state or other social and political powers, however, King insists that this judgment should be for the sake of fostering free, loving human community.  One of God’s arms is justice and wrath, but God’s other arm is one of love and grace,[16] and King hears love and justice in harmony, not as conflicting instruments.  In short, “justice is really love in calculation.  Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.”[17]  Thus, King does not imply that God’s anger toward oppression compromises God’s love for the oppressors, as is most evident in King’s consistent call for the oppressed themselves to love the oppressors, a call he bases on Jesus’ command in Matthew 5 to love one’s enemies.  King insists that we ought to love our enemies because God loves them and there remains something of the image of God in them.[18]  The punishment of—and protest against—injustice has a reforming purpose of reconciliation:  in an address at the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity in Buffalo, King maintains that opposing injustice (here via the Montgomery bus boycott) is meant “to awaken a sense of shame in the oppressor,” and “the end is reconciliation.  The end is the creation of a beloved community….not retaliation but redemption.”[19]

Because the justice of God reigns over the rulers and kingdoms of the biblical world, it also rules over the present political powers.  By speaking the words of Scripture with this conviction to his own surroundings, Dr. King reminds these powers that God’s justice has always included judgment that can either be executed by a just state or executed against an unjust state.  A warning to the oppressor and a comfort to the oppressed, this judgment works toward a reconciled human community governed by God’s loving justice.  Such a purpose runs with the grain of God’s universe, in which justice will ultimately triumph, in which “the old order is passing away and a new order is being born.”[20]  When justice finally runs its course, it “will be the time we will be able to stand before the universe and say with joy [another allusion to Revelation]—The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and our Christ!  And he shall reign forever and ever!  Hallelujah!”[21]


[1] Many thanks to Mark Randall James for valuable critique of earlier versions of this essay.
[2] King, Jr., Strength to Love (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1981), 19.
[3] King, Jr., Strength to Love, 20.
[4] See King, Jr., “War and Pacifism”; see also Michael G. Long, Against Us, But For Us: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the State (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2005), 43-44.
[5] Long, Against Us, 107-110.  Long contests Richard Lischer’s claim that King did not speak prophetic words of threatened punishment against oppressors until after the march from Selma (Long, 108; cf. Lischer, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America [New York: Oxford University Press, 1995], 11).
[6] King, Jr., “MIA Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church,” Papers, 3:73.
[7] King, Jr., “MIA Mass Meeting,” Papers, 3:73-74.  See Long, Against Us, 107-108.  Long does not cite as many texts or speeches as one would hope, but he does argue that, for King, “divine justice is also a matter of legislating divine will and then judging and actually punishing those who disobey divine law…. If the sinners do not repent, the judge then becomes an executor who uses wrath and power to punish sinners.”  In all of this, the state itself must be subordinate to divine law (108).
[8] King’s translation here and elsewhere reflects both the King James Version—“Let judgment run down”—and the American Standard Version—“Let justice roll down”.
[9] Keith D. Miller, Martin Luther King’s Biblical Epic: His Final, Great Speech (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2011), 40-41.
[10] King, “Our God is Marching On.”
[11] King, Jr., “Birth of a New Nation,” sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
[12] In another sermon, King describes Ghandi as breaking the backbone of the British Empire, though of course without violence (“Palm Sunday Sermon on Mohandas K. Gandhi,” delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, March 22, 1959).
[13] For example,  regarding the United States’ intervention in Vietnam, see King, Jr., “It’s a Dark Day in Our Nation”/“Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” Sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, April 30, 1967.  See also similar statements in “Where Do We Go From Here,” an address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, August 16, 1967; and “The Drum Major Instinct,” delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, February 4, 1968.
[14] For example, he does not at the end of “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
[15] King, Jr., “Birth of a New Nation.”
[16] See King, Jr., Strength to Love, 19-20.
[17] King, Jr., “MIA Mass Meeting,” Papers, 3:73.  Also: “Standing beside love is always justice” (“MIA Mass Meeting,” Papers, 3:74).  Regarding the work in Montgomery, King seems to identify justice with love:  “If we are wrong [to protest], justice is a lie.  Love has no meaning.  And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (“MIA Mass Meeting,” Papers, 3:73.  Italics added).
[18] See, for example, “Loving Your Enemies,” in A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson and Peter Holloran (New York: IPM/Warner Books, 1998), 41-60.  King states, “Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it” (43).
[19] King, Jr., “The Birth of a New Age” (Address delivered at the 50th anniversary celebration of Alpha Phi Alpha in Buffalo [delivered in Chicago], August 11, 1956), Papers, 3:344.
[20] King, Jr., “The Birth of a New Age,” Papers, 3:344.
[21] King, Jr., “The Birth of a New Age,” Papers, 3:346.

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