As always on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day everyone was speaking about his witness, his words, and his life. Facebook and Twitter were ablaze with memes and quotes. Radio stations were having listeners call in to talk about their heroes. Even random, and sometimes very unlikely, TV shows were paying him respects, but as I read people’s commentary on Martin Luther King, Jr., or as I heard people speak of their heroes, some like and some very unlike the non-violent example we were honoring, I couldn’t help but wonder if we have inadvertently domesticated his voice. Have we celebrated his influence in the civil rights’ movement for so long that we have dulled the sharpness of his words about other aspects of American culture?
I think this happens a lot when it comes to the prophets of our past. The simple act of designating one day as day of remembrance, or by constructing a statue in his honor, can start the process of domestication. We can pick and choose what parts of the story we remember. After all, it has to fit into one short day or on one small piece of granite. We can honor his words on race relations and ignore his words about economics, wars, and guns. We remember the parts we like; we forget that which makes us uncomfortable.
Jesus seemed to think the religious leaders of his day were prone to doing this with the Hebrew prophets. In Matthew 23 we read some of the most biting words that Jesus ever uttered. Starting in verse 13 Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees for a variety of practices, and in verses 29-32 we read this:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors.” (NRSV)
The Pharisees were building monuments to the fallen prophets, those assassinated by their ancestors. They were boastfully saying that, had they been there, they would not have taken part in the violence that was unleashed against these great people, but Jesus calls them out. “You truly are the children of those power-hungry persecutors.” Building monuments and remembering a few words does not honor the memory of a prophet. Even celebrating a holiday falls short of proper homage. The only way to truly celebrate is to pay heed to the warnings pronounced by the prophet.
If all we ever do is build statues to people, we, in effect, create an image of that person that can be controlled. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis struggles with this idea in regards to remembering his wife who had recently passed. He was well aware that he ran the risk of remembering an image of his wife that was nothing like the woman he had fallen in love with. We do this by remembering only parts of their existence while omitting the things that were unpleasant, or uncomfortable. We can remember the love while forgetting the annoyances.
When we speak of God we call this idolatry. We make an image of God to be God. Thus we end up worshiping something that is far less than the God who is. When we make images, be them of lost loved ones, prophets, or God, we make something that we can control. We can put words into their mouths that we want to hear while forgetting the words that we find challenging, offensive, or angering. The only true way, however, to honor those who have been cut down by the powers of this world, like Martin Luther King, Jr., is to let their words, all of their words, speak for themselves. Then their prophetic voice may be recovered for a generation who has only known and heard of a prophet that has been domesticated by some of the very people who would have wanted him assassinated in the first place.
Let us, then, hear some of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. Let us allow him speak for himself, and then, may we go and find ways to heed his words and become more responsible followers of Jesus Christ.
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”
“By our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim…we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”
“We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
“Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
“Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice.”
“The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice.”