History does strange things to a human being. The ones who escape the gravitational pull of their own time are certainly noteworthy. They are men and women who have left a mark on this world. But there are so many aspects of a person that get burnt off in history's ascent. The individual becomes flattened and compressed. A complex human being is turned into a two-dimensional figure; often flung onto one end of a sinner-saint spectrum.
Their passions and ideas are seared down to the simple sound bites. They are domesticated. Their rough edges smoothed off. Their more radical ideas lost somewhere in the atmosphere. Once they join the orbit of other luminaries, the challenging fire in their souls—the very thing that launched them into history—often cools to something more safe and comforting. All of their missions are accomplished.
You want to remember the person, but you worry that you're too far away to get a clear picture. You pull out your telescope, you research and dig, and you get a closer look. You look around and see that all that person's missions were not accomplished. From the same mouths you hear the person lauded and yet the ideas for which he or she stood dismissed. You feel like you don't have a grasp on what that person truly was about.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister, a flawed human being, and one of those luminaries we ought to remember. In fact his humanity highlights his courage. We recall him primarily for championing civil rights. And yet he also spoke about nonviolence, poverty, the military industrial complex, our gun culture, and much more. All of these issues touch from racism to the poor among us to touching every person because we are all here together. The life of my neighbor is tied to my own.
Today he will be domesticated. People will look to him for inspiration but not for challenge. His words will be co-opted by individuals who don't fully grasp what he was about and by others who are running counter to his life's work. His mission of racial reconciliation has not been fully accomplished as we live in a world where people push back against the idea that black lives matter.
It's complicated and part of me feels like I have no business even writing about Dr. King as a white, middle-class father living some five decades after him. But it's important for me to remember him in all of his complicated and challenging glory. I still remember reading "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" for the first time and a particular passage that cut me to the core:
There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
I still need to read that passage today. I need to be disturbed by those words and unsettled when I look at the world around me. The inspirational words and example are part of MLK's story but so is the prophetic voice that challenges. I have to realize that some sort of action must come with that stirring. I hope that even though I do not fully understand Dr. King that I can honor his memory and the memory of so many more unknown. I will try my best not to flatten his voice and others into safe, two-dimensional inspirational saints. They deserve better.