The following reflection was written and shared by Dr. Emily Reimer-Barry, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Chair, Department of Theology and Religious Studies
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama when he prepared a sermon entitled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” which opens his published collection of early sermons Strength to Love. It is remarkable how the message of that sermon is as relevant today as it was in 1955. While King was strategizing with community leaders then and implementing the bus boycott, he was preparing his congregation for long term commitments to social justice work and resistance to unjust segregation laws.
In “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” King explains to his congregation that followers of Jesus must face “a difficult and hostile world.” In that world, Christians must be both tough and tender.
What does he mean by “tough”? King begins by explaining the need for critical thinking. A Christian must have a tough mind, characterized by “incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment.” But it is difficult work to cultivate critical thinking. “There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think,” says King. He calls this “gullibility” and “soft-mindedness.” The soft-minded person accepts what they read in the newspapers without thinking critically about the agenda of the author. The soft-minded person believes marketing messages that tell you you will be happier if you buy their product. The soft-minded person believes in superstitions. The soft-minded person fears change. The soft-minded person is a sheep following the whims of a dictator without raising questions. King quotes Mein Kampf: “By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, it is possible to make people believe that heaven is hell—and hell, heaven… The greater the lie, the more readily will it be believed.”
So too with white politicians who fed on racial prejudice of soft-minded constituents: “With insidious zeal, they make inflammatory statements and disseminate distortions and half-truths that arouse abnormal fears and morbid antipathies within the minds of uneducated and underprivileged whites, leaving them so confused that they are led to acts of meanness and violence that no normal person commits.”
King argues that Christians must reject soft-mindedness. “The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft-mindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”
King’s critique of the complacency of privileged elites in his own day and his rebuke of soft-minded Christians who want “easy answers” to complex problems is as important today as it was in 1955. Meanwhile, powerful corporations and news agencies continue to distort the truth and manipulate readers. The playbook of Breitbart News aligns exactly with what King describes as “inflammatory statements” and “distortions and half-truths that arouse abnormal fears” for readers. Seeking the truth is a radical act of citizenship in our present context.
But King’s sermons also provide hope and encourage the practice of changemaking. Christians need not only have a “tough mind,” but also a “tender heart.” This means appreciating the beauty of friendship, being moved by the suffering of another person, and rejecting hardheartedness. “The hardhearted individual never sees people as people, but rather as mere objects or as impersonal cogs in an ever-turning wheel… He depersonalizes life.” King tells his congregation that they need to be both tough minded and tender hearted in order to “move creatively toward the goal of freedom and justice.”
“Soft-minded individuals among us feel that the only way to deal with oppressing is by adjusting to it. They acquiesce and resign themselves to segregation.” King describes this approach as cowardly. But he also rejects a hardhearted approach that seeks physical violence rooted in corroding hatred. Violence only begets more violence, King explains. Rather, what is needed is a combination of toughmindedness and tenderheartedness, a combination of justice and love.
In this, as in other sermons, King demonstrates his enduring legacy: his rebuke of unjust social structures combined thoughtful social analysis with theological acumen and hope rooted in the good news of the gospel. He does not provide an easy way out for contemporary readers, but we can follow his methods by applying the same skills of critical analysis and practical realism to our assessment of structural sins today. That deep dive into the data of poverty, racial injustice, sexism, heteropatriarchy, militarism, and political corruption can lead one to inner turmoil. “I’m so small. What can I possibly do to make the world a better place? I’m just one person.” But King’s message is also one of encouragement. Find a community of people with your shared values and commitments, read critically, reflect on your choices and your values, and take things one step at a time. King didn’t deliver the Montgomery bus boycott on his own. He worked in collaboration with many people who had a shared vision of a more just world. And your changemaking efforts today can follow in his footsteps.
Students in my THRS 231 Christian Changemakers intersession class recently had the opportunity to walk the MLK Promenade in San Diego, discuss the sculpture “Breaking of the Chains” by Melvin Edwards, and reflect on King’s enduring legacy for changemakers today. We hope you enjoy these pictures and some of our favorite quotations from that walk. If you are interested in joining a community of people who want to make the world a better place, join us at the Changemaker Hub!
“As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich… As long as diseases are rampant… I can never be totally healthy… I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”
“The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”