Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Reader

Ronald J. Feenstra

Second Reader

Mary L. Vanden Berg

Third Reader

Lee P. Hardy

Fourth Reader

Rufus Burrow, Jr.


This dissertation analyzes the roots and implications of Martin Luther King Jr.'s redemptive suffering theodicy, reconsidering its continued relevance to contemporary discussions about theodicy among black theologians and within the black church. Through his home and church influences, King inherited a nearly 250-year-old black redemptive suffering tradition that traces back to early Negro spirituals and abolitionist works. King carefully developed these traditional theodical themes through critical engagement with Protestant liberal sources before applying his redemptive suffering formula during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. With a view towards the cross and the omnipotent personal God's good purposes in the world, King held that persons have the freedom and responsibility to agapically engage their suffering to help bring about personal and social transformation. I argue that King's redemptive suffering theodicy successfully answers the challenges raised by its contemporary black humanist and Womanist critics. Among black humanists, William R. Jones and Anthony Pinn allege that King's theodicy undermines black resistance to oppression by calling blacks to wait passively for God to deliver them rather than actively strive for their own social liberation. However, through its emphasis on the moral responsibility of God's free agents and the matchless power of God, King's theodicy provides powerful motivation, guidance, and hope for liberative social action. Womanist theologians Delores Williams and Jacquelyn Grant suspect that King's cruci-centric theodicy promotes a dangerous martyr mentality which valorizes suffering, makes black -women acquiescent in the face of their own oppression, and prioritizes the redemption of oppressors over the dignity and wellbeing of the oppressed. King's theodicy addresses these concerns by emphasizing a moral influence approach to the cross which calls black women to learn from and resist experiences of oppression as empowered moral agents. By identifying their suffering with the suffering of Christ, King's theodicy also protects the dignity of black women who have suffered while resisting oppression, describing them as empowered witnesses rather than as mere victims. Finally, King's theodicy provides a powerful and practical resource to help guide the black church and community in its redemptive engagement with contemporary forms of suffering.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.