Lessons from Martin Luther King Jr. that Transcend Race

Professor of Theology and Ethics Hak Joon Lee’s expertise on the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. comes from a kinship deeper than race.

Meet the Storytellers

Professor of Theology and Ethics Hak Joon Lee’s expertise on the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. comes from a kinship that transcends race.

“I was looking for a role model,” Professor Hak Joon Lee recalls from his office overlooking Fuller’s Pasadena campus mall. He is thinking back to 1998, when he joined New Brunswick Theological Seminary as the first Asian faculty member in the institution’s 200 years of existence. His life up to then had been a series of explorations that started with an interest in sociology and transitioned into a PhD in Christian ethics.

For Lee, Martin Luther King Jr. was an example of how to “be an authentic Christian and also how to engage the public sphere.” Lee’s self-tailored study of ethics through the lens of African American, Korean, and Puritan life employs different angles on this one vision of koinonia—community—a vision that started with the influence of Dr. King’s teachings on Lee’s own days of protest. 

They Sang “We Shall Overcome” in Korean

A young Hak Joon Lee drew many parallels between the American civil rights movement led by Dr. King and his own experience living under a military dictatorship in South Korea. In 1963, Chung-Hee Park was elected to the presidency in South Korea, and by 1972 he proclaimed martial law, declared himself eternal president, and restricted the freedom of the small nation’s inhabitants. College students in South Korea began to rallyand protest against the military dictatorship, translating the protest song “We Shall Overcome” into the Korean “Woori Seungri Hari” and singing as they marched. Lee was one of those students.

By the mid 1970s, President Park struck back, censoring hundreds of American songs, proclaiming all Black music illegal, and specifically banning the song “We Shall Overcome.” This set the stage for the infamous GwangJu Massacre that rocked the nation in 1980, when new president Chun Doo-Hwan ordered troops to open fire on a crowd of mostly student protestors. Lee’s memory of those years is vivid and searing. He remembers those tumultuous college years as a time of asking more questions than he was getting answers.

“I wrestled with whether good, just, and peaceful communities are possible,” he says. “What kind of society will provide the space for people without discrimination and injustice?”

Clearly, Lee’s connection to King and his proclamation of non-violence was embedded far deeper than their differing skin color. After arriving in the United States alone, Lee sought answers to those questions and authentic community for himself. His studies finally pointed him to the church as a perfect vision of community for humanity. Up to then Lee had been a self-professing Christian, but discovered the power of the gospel through intellectual pursuit.

Committed to Faith and Justice

By 1998, Lee had graduated from Princeton Seminary with PhD and MDiv degrees, and joined the faculty at New Brunswick. As a doctoral student, he had made a foray into Black American history serving as teaching assistant to Peter J. Paris, the leading African American ethicist teaching on Dr. King. Around that time, Lee also started a church in the Camden area of New Jersey, working toward harmony between Korean and Black populations following tensions in New York neighborhoods and in the wake of the Los Angeles riots. At New Brunswick he “rediscovered” Martin Luther King Jr., drawn to him again because, like many Koreans, King was fervent in his personal faith, but unlike many Koreans, King was also committed to the areas of justice and social engagement. 

As an immigrant and ethnic minority, Lee found King’s integration of faith and public life crucial to his studies and his personal development. They are lessons he still draws on today when faced with discrimination, whether it be overtly hostile name-calling, institutional racism, or what Bill Cosby famously called the “subtle racism of lowered expectations.”

Lee is convinced that his search for koinonia is found in shalom—peace. That commitment led him to be the first and only Korean and Asian to ever write a scholarly work on Martin Luther King Jr. His two books on the non-violent icon—We Will Get to the Promised Land: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Communal-Political Spirituality and The Great World House: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Global Ethics—are widely accepted by African American scholars and King experts. 

Creating the “Beloved Community”

Walk into any lecture, panel discussion, chapel, or classroom on a day when Lee is speaking and you’ll get a glimpse of what still makes him tick: community, community, community. If he is teaching on King, it’s the “beloved community” he expounds on. If he’s teaching on Puritan Covenant ethics and Jürgen Habermas (the subject of his doctoral dissertation), then it’s the “community in covenant” that gets emphasized. As one theology student put it, in the classroom Lee doesn’t just lecture, “he preaches—sometimes loudly and fervently!”—challenging students to be involved. 

That fervor comes because Lee doesn’t want to simply memorialize Martin Luther King Jr. He intends to revive and perpetuate King’s vision and values and respects the image of God in all people. He wants to envision what God’s community would be like or should be like in the shrinking global world of the 21st century, asking himself and his students, “How can we create theology that celebrates diversity and also love and unity?”

“I see certain glimpses of koinonia relationships among the students who took my Martin Luther King Jr. course and other classes,” Lee says. “My classroom at Fuller is that laboratory of building God’s beloved community—the triune God’s beloved community—in a wonderful, covenantal relationship of mutual respect, and no domination. That’s my Fuller classroom.”  

Books by Hak Joon Lee on Martin Luther King Jr. include:

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    Sharon Hong
    Sharon, writer, is Internal Communications and Social Media Coordinator in the Communications and Marketing Division at Fuller Seminary.
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    Nate Harrison
    Nate is a still photographer and cinematographer at Fuller and a recent Master of Fine Arts graduate from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. His work can be found here.
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