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Discovering the Path to Empowerment: Guides from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Early Christian Texts

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota

Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota.
(photo from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s been over twenty years since I saw a museum exhibit that hasn’t let go of me since then. On Martin Luther King Day, we were visiting some family members who lived in Memphis, when they encouraged us to visit the National Civil Rights Museum. The first room we entered was a stark display of a series of photos of the first (now) nameless Africans who were enslaved and brought to America. The first images in the series consisted of men fully bent over, unable to stand up straight within the restrictions of their living quarters. Each image progressing around the room, representing the passing of time, depicted the gradual straightening stature of the men and women who ultimately became the African Americans of modern times.

These men and women illustrated for me the meaning of empowerment.

No one gave them the freedom to overthrow oppression. There wasn’t even any evidence that could provide a reason for hope for many long decades. But it was something inside that passed down from generation to generation, giving them the strength to stand upright, despite the fierce opposition against them. No power on earth could hold them down, because empowerment is a latent internal authority.

As Dr. King said of them,

“There lived … a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights and thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and of civilization.”

King drew on Biblical imagery for his conviction in this empowerment, and he would undoubtedly have appreciated the powerful message in support of his cause from the then-unknown extracanonical texts. He wouldn’t have known, for example, about the collection of early Christian texts that were discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, 20 years before his death and not translated until many years later. But they reinforce his message today for anyone striving for the freedom to be themselves.

It makes sense that these ancient texts would hold spiritual insights for empowerment. They were written during the period when Roman oppression took control over everyone’s lives, especially the majority of the population – who were slaves.

Here is an example from the Reality of the Rulers, (also called Hypostasis of the Archons). The author comforts his readers with hope for defending themselves against the ‘archons’ or, rulers.

The great angel Eleleth spoke to me and said, “I am Understanding; … Do you think these ‘archons’ (rulers) have power over you? None of them can overpower the root of truth, … These authorities cannot defile you or that race, for your (plural) home is with Incorruptibility, where the virgin Spirit dwells… (93:15)

Divine authority triumphs over the forces that undermine and destroy, and this ancient text validates Dr. King’s claim for human rights many centuries later. There aren’t any rulers who can defile you, the text promises, because the ‘root of truth’ comes from the ‘home’ of ‘incorruptibility.’ I take that to mean that our origins in heavenly incorruptibility protect us from human forces of false powers, greed, envy, and destructive motives.

But does everyone have access to this empowerment? From this text, it appears that ‘understanding’ is the key to power – not any kind of socially organized powers.  The only thing that would separate those who do and those who do not have access to this power is a lack of ‘understanding’ our roots.

The Secret Revelation of John (another ancient text also called Apocryphon of John) also demonstrates how the source of our empowerment comes from understanding ‘our roots.’

The savior depicted in the Secret Revelation of John, who saves from any kind of sickness or evil power, reaches to those who are suffering and guides them:

Rise up! Remember what you have heard.
Trace back your roots to me, the merciful one. (26:28)

Again, this author emphasizes that our safety and freedom are based on finding or understanding our origins (roots) in “the merciful one,” or, as in the Reality of the Rulers, in the home of the incorruptible.

The presumption of these writers is that all humans have their origins – their roots – in the divine source. Dr. King inspired a whole generation and more to “stand up for their rights,” which implies a realization that the right to freedom is inborn. But we need to understand it, or know it, in order to act on it.

This is the empowerment from within that turns earthly powers on their ears. What I saw in those images at the National Civil Rights Museum was the vivid enactment of people over several generations who knew their roots, who knew their origins in “the merciful one,” and who knew that their home was of “the incorruptible.”