On Prophetic Rage
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a prophetic rage that rejected the status quo and strove for a just and loving community: we should too.
By David Justice|October 21, 2021
Rage is a loaded word. In the current political climate in America, the mention of rage may recall images of the January 6th insurrection or the visceral politics of fear that dominates much of our national discourse. Rage of this sort often involves historically privileged groups lashing out against what they see as a threat to their privileged position. This rage is reactionary, a response to a situation in which the status quo is in danger of being irrevocably altered. African American studies scholar Carol Anderson refers to this as “white rage.” Its violence is sometimes explicit, as in the 1866 massacres in Memphis and New Orleans or, more recently, the crowds that chanted “Take the capitol.” But the core of white rage is the violence embedded in our white supremacist systems and structures – in the “respectable” work of boardrooms and legislative halls. “Respectable” white rage and explicit white supremacist violence are co-constitutive, reinforcing one another in service of maintaining the status quo of white supremacy.
There is another type of rage in America, one that is related to white rage but directly opposed to it. In this essay, I am concerned with prophetic rage, specifically in the theology and activism of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His prophetic rage rejects the status quo and instead strives towards just and loving ways of living in community.
King dedicated his life to realizing the Beloved Community, which was his vision of a better world where oppressive systems are destroyed and each person’s dignity and worth are recognized and respected. In so doing, he championed nonviolence; however, an essential aspect of his undertaking was a deep-seated, prophetic rage. As I understand it, this prophetic rage was a refusal of the given world of oppression through a Spirit-infused vision that inspires people to make the Beloved Community a reality.
King’s prophetic rage drew on a prevalent feeling of anger and frustration among Black people against the status quo. He would have concurred with James Baldwin when he famously stated that “to be a Negro in this country, and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Baldwin was naming the fact that Black people must regularly witness the “criminal indifference” systematically shown towards Black life in America. The rage that Baldwin named was a rejection of the status quo of Black oppression and death, and therefore could be redemptive. However, Baldwin also recognized that this rage had the potential for self-destruction, that it must be controlled in some way to stop it from turning inward. Similarly, King recognized the rage present in poor and Black communities and, rather than weakening or dismissing this rage, sought to channel it constructively into a prophetic rage that would move us towards the Beloved Community.
Recent feminist scholarship provides a roadmap to understanding prophetic rage. Brittney Cooper, in her incisive book Eloquent Rage, states that “rage is a kind of refusal. To be made a fool of, to be silenced, to be shamed, or to stand for anybody’s bullshit.” She points out that her rage as a Black woman rejects attempts to dehumanize her. It works to end the intelligibility of domination—“Rage is great at helping us to destroy things,” namely those things that lead to oppression and domination. Additionally, drawing on Audre Lorde, Cooper points to the communal aspect of rage:
Individualized acts of eloquent rage have limited reach. But the collective, orchestrated fury of Black women can move the whole world. This is what the Black Lives Matter movement has reminded us. There is something clarifying about Black women’s rage, something essential about the way it drills down to the core truth.
What Cooper names here—the clarifying and empowering aspect of Black women’s rage—has a counterpart in prophetic rage. That is, the prophetic rage in King’s theology is not individual but communal. However, for King the source of prophetic rage is explicitly the Spirit, namely God breaking into history to aid the oppressed and form them towards the Beloved Community. For King, we are fundamentally interdependent as human beings, and this holds true of the oppressed rejecting their oppression as well.
King learned within the community of resistance how to fight, and how to reject the terms of the oppressor. What King names as the “rage of the ghetto” was rightly disruptive, but it needed to be channeled through love so that it could redeem our “‘property-centered’ and ‘profit-centered’ system” and work to “achieve a ‘person-oriented’ society.” This goal of achieving a person-oriented society would be humanizing for both oppressed and oppressor, and would enact the social imaginary of the Beloved Community. That is to say, King would agree with womanist theologian M. Shawn Copeland when she states that personhood “flow[s] from formative living in community rather than individualism… we can realize our personhood only in solidarity with the exploited, despised, poor ‘other.’”
The idea of channeling rage constructively is also found in King’s talk of Black people being awakened to a new sense of somebodiness. He recognized that this awakening was happening all across Asia and Africa, and that the result was the oppressed throwing off the bonds of colonial tyranny. All this, King argued, was the work of the Spirit, which was guiding individuals, nations, and ultimately all of humanity towards the telos of the Beloved Community. The Spirit worked via prophetic rage to awaken people, and the oppressed in particular, to see past the status quo and work towards a more just and loving future. For example, King was present at the liberation of Ghana from the colonial rule of the British empire. Poetically reflecting on that event, and paraphrasing Revelation chapter 7, he stated,
For I can look out and see a great number, as John saw, marching into the great eternity, because God is working in this world, and at this hour, and at this moment. And God grants that we will get on board and start marching with God because we got orders now to break down the bondage and the walls of colonialism, exploitation, and imperialism. To break them down to the point that no man will trample over another man, but that all men will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. And then we will be in Canaan’s freedom land.
King saw this same revolution at work in the Civil Rights movement, leading the oppressed to a renewed sense of their “somebodiness,” which he understood as a renewed sense of dignity and self-respect. This resulting sense of somebodiness is what King hoped to channel into prophetic rage—an existential rejection of dominant systems and the imagination of a new world.
As Black persons in the United States and oppressed people across the world expressed their somebodiness, their rage demanded that they be recognized as human. The oppressed were shattering previous epistemologies of domination and colonization, and King hoped to work via prophetic rage to imagine a new world where these systems of oppression no longer were in place or even possible. To aid in bringing about the Beloved Community, one must be maladjusted to the world we currently inhabit, and prophetic rage is an integral part of this maladjustment.
The prophetic rage in King’s theology can never be separated from love. His rage is loving because it works to create a new situation where the bodies and spirits of the oppressed are no longer subjected to the forces of domination, and the souls of oppressors are no longer maimed through their endorsement of oppression. Thus, even in the worst of circumstances, love can never be separated from prophetic rage, because this would lead to the absurdity of hate. Hate makes community and unity impossible by separating people into opposed groups that define themselves over and against one another.
King clearly renounces hate, because he agrees with the mystical theologian Howard Thurman that hate ultimately leads to death of the spirit, even though hate can attempt to mimic prophetic rage. Both hate and prophetic rage can lead to a felt sense of righteousness and ostensible moral permission to engage in the rejection and destruction of the status quo. Yet, despite these superficial similarities, prophetic rage and hate are qualitatively different. Prophetic rage opens up the possibility for community but hate destroys it. Prophetic rage is targeted at injustice, but hate is wantonly, indiscriminately destructive. The difference between prophetic rage and hate is the difference between shearing off sections of a plant that are sapping its life in order to encourage new growth, and poisoning it such that root and stem are destroyed.
Inherent within prophetic rage is what King called a “strong demanding love” that refuses injustice and seeks human dignity for both the oppressed and oppressors. Drawing on the tradition of the prophetic Black church and the Hebrew prophets, King recognized the need for a transformational love bound to righteousness. It is worth noting that the verse from Amos that King quoted so often, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” was a declaration of judgment against the people of Israel, because they had failed to love and care for the poor and oppressed in their midst. King’s love for the poor and oppressed in America and across the world led him to call for this same sort of judgment of oppressive systems and structures, and it was prophetic rage that enabled him to see the liberative possibilities that lie beyond the status quo.
The strong demanding love that King championed requires the oppressed to insist that their human dignity be respected, and for oppressors to undergo a difficult, painful transformation. That is to say, King wished a transformative, humanizing suffering upon oppressors. It is not the case that he saw suffering as one option for the redemption of oppressors. Rather, he argued, based on his reading of Thurman, that suffering in the fight for freedom and justice was a key aspect of the creation of solidarity and transformation. King scholar Stewart Burns argues, “Thurman [believed] that mindful suffering opened the door to human solidarity. King, his mentee, would lift this insight to a higher level. King came to believe that suffering born of adversity can fortify, enlighten, encourage, ennoble, transform, and even ‘divinize’ the sufferer.” Entering into a solidarity of suffering allowed for the possibility of transformation of oppressors. However, ignoring it and the suffering of the oppressed leaves oppressors outside of the community working to make the Beloved Community a reality.
Turning again to Copeland, she defines suffering as “the disturbance of one's inner tranquility caused by physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual forces that are apprehended as jeopardizing one's very existence.” Certainly not all suffering is beneficial, but when it stems from a recognition of the damage one has done to another and produces a desire to end that damage through working for liberation in solidarity with those one was previously oppressing, suffering is a healing process that undoes distortions of the soul. This point is something she and King would agree upon. What King was recommending was, in effect, spiritual chemotherapy for oppressors, a process that would induce suffering but would also open up the possibility for healing and redemption.
 Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2016).
 My account of prophetic rage draws from Johnny Bernard Hill’s book Prophetic Rage but adds an emphasis on pneumatology and transgressive epistemology.
 James Baldwin, Emile Capouya, Lorraine Hansberry, Nat Hentoff, Langston Hughes, and Alfred Kazin, “The Negro in American Culture,” CrossCurrents 11, no. 3 (1961): 205. I do not mean to imply that Baldwin was religious in the same sense as King. King identified fundamentally as a Black Baptist minister and, despite often condemning the church for its failure to love and fight for change, never left the church or his identity as a minister. Baldwin’s religiosity is complex, for while he rejected organized religion, his writings retain a sense of the spiritual and prophetic. Notwithstanding these important differences, I argue that they both identified and made use of rage in constructive and prophetic ways.
 Brittney Cooper, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018), 151.
 Cooper, Eloquent Rage, 168.
 Laurent, King and the Other America, 139.
 M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 89.
 Martin Luther King Jr., “‘The Birth of a New Nation,’ Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church,” King Institute, accessed 5/15/21, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/birth-new-nation-sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church.
 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 86-88.
 Amos 5:24, NRSV
 Burns, “Cosmic Companionship,” 117.
 M. Shawn Copeland, Knowing Christ Crucified: The Witness of African American Religious Experience (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018), 162.