Martin Luther King Jr. on a pedestal

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” will enter the reign of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Heavenly Parent.  Matthew 7:21

It is tempting to depict Martin Luther King, Jr., as a saint, or even as a Christ figure.  The parallels, after all, are striking: a fiery young leader preaches a liberating vision for human community.  He stirs up controversy, confronts the powerful, unsettles the status quo.  He stands with those on the social margins, affirming their dignity.  His eloquent words envision a future that seems impossible, yet stirs the deepest longings of our hearts.  But he is slain, brutally, unjustly, . . .

As with many modern-day prophets—Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, countless lesser-known sisters and brothers—King models for us away of discipleship.  Yet our rush toward canonization is a disservice, both to Brother Martin and to ourselves.

He was a faithful, struggling child of God, bearing, like all of us, his wounds and flaws.

More importantly, sainthood is often our mechanism for domesticating prophets and letting ourselves off the hook.  We elevate and idealize our heroes, effectively diminishing the challenge of their witness.   As Dorothy Day herself put it: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

via Beware of Saints.

Dee Dee Risher wrote this when she was co-editor of The Other Side, a Christian magazine devoted to racial equality.  As she pointed out, when you put someone such as Dr. King on a pedestal, it is easy to find excuses for not following his teaching.  Who among us is a perfect person?

We observe Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday, but we don’t grapple with his ideas about nonviolence and social justice.

Here’s more from Dee Dee Risher.

If we are honestly going to assess Martin Luther King, Jr., we must all find our place in this history.  We must confront who we were then–and what we have become as a nation and within ourselves.  The process of reminding ourselves of his powerful vision and critique is only transformitive if we are also willing to reshape ourselves as a result of the listening.

Our exploration of King’s life reminds us that we must be willing to let our heroes be flawed and struggling, at our sides and not over our heads.  The various chronicles of King’s life are candid about his humanness.  King and others in the movement were traditional in their views of women and often dismissive of their contributions.  His sexual infidelities have been widely reported.  He talked candidly about his own cowardice.  We need to let him be human.  When we do, we might discover in him some of the struggles, failures, and losses of our own lives.

Nor did King make the movement.  The movement chose King as one of its primary spokespersons, and he attempted to be worthy of that naming—but the movement was a swelling forth of the Spirit in many lives.  It created a place for King, and after much soul-searching, King was willing to answer that call, its own form of courage.

For me, one of King’s most salient teachings was his conviction that each of us holds some of the truth.  He believed that our processes of listening and speaking to one another become the hallowed communication by which our lives are transformed, and by which we understand the power of love Jesus spoke of.

via Reclaiming the Dreamer.

The Other Side ceased publication in 2005.  Click on A Clarion of Justice for Dee Dee Risher’s memoir of the magazine.

Hat tip to Martha Munson for quoting Dee Dee Risher in a sermon at First Universalist Church.

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