On this holiday devoted to Martin Luther King, Jr., I hope that we do not forget his full legacy in the proper context. In Meeting yesterday, a Friend's message rather bluntly noted that she is growing tired of the way that King's life has been increasingly presented. Starry-eyed optimists have reduced the man to some sort of inoffensive Santa Claus figure. Gone is the edginess, the reformer threatening the status quo, and the leader who spoke out not just for Civil Rights, but also against the Vietnam War. And, like the Friend, for these reasons, I am beginning to dislike certain aspects of this day. King would want us to continue to press forward, not pass out rose colored glasses while we romanticize past struggles. It is true that winners write history, but be it known that I disagree strongly with the translation.
We often like our heroes to live unblemished, saint-like lives. We may not even be religious, but we still often put people in one of two boxes: Saint or Sinner. This can not be said for Dr. King. And though I may be in the minority, I prefer to see such figures as flawed and imperfect. We can then resist the temptation to sanitize their life's work. King has become an icon of sorts to a particular strain of pie-in-the-sky liberal with activist leanings. I say this not to insult, but to hopefully make note of the severe limitations of their cloying attitudes. Humans are particularly artful and creative in the way that they construct the best of intentions.
There is a passage in Acts which illustrates the subversive concept of Civil Disobedience, a concept King wholeheartedly believed in and struggled mightily to achieve. To establish the context, Simon Peter was one of Jesus' twelve disciples and also his handpicked choice to establish and spread Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Peter was also well-known for his gaffes and an occasionally tone-deaf response to crucial interactions with God. In this passage, Jesus has long since ascended into Heaven, leaving to the disciples to spread the Good News by themselves.
About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air.
Then a voice said to him, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat them." "No, Lord," Peter declared. "I have never eaten anything that our Jewish laws have declared impure and unclean."
But the voice spoke again: "Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean."
The same vision was repeated three times. Then the sheet was suddenly pulled up to heaven.
Peter was very perplexed. What could the vision mean?
This passage is not to be taken literally, at least not in any strict sense. It is, instead, meant to illustrate that God's will takes precedent over human law. Dietary codes were central to Jewish belief of the time. If an observant Jew like Peter were to encounter the wrong sort of people, touch the wrong thing, or consume the wrong foods, an elaborate purifying ritual would then need to be immediately performed. Being unclean for any reason was a state of being that was considered almost unspeakably foul. These rules were said to be ordained by God himself, so it's easy to see why Peter would have been so perplexed to be told otherwise. Despite this, God is adamant in his assertion.
Dr. King, through his actions, words, and deeds, challenged sacrosanct laws and codes. What we now see as glorious was once viewed as shocking and disruptive. He spent time in jail for daring to violate established rules and statutes, much in keeping with religious martyrs of every age. Many in the country, not just the South, were resistant to anyone who sought to directly challenge the validity of laws that had long reinforced segregation and the racial inferiority of African-Americans. These had been on the books for years, and whole generations of people had known nothing else. White and black both had never questioned the reasons why, and had instead followed them dutifully. Those who claimed to stand for law and order justified their own resistance by pointing back to established precedent. To them, King was nothing more than an anarchist bent on overthrowing the right of states to make and enforce their own laws. He was a troublemaker, and a particularly dangerous one.
As we mull upon the memory of Dr. King today, it might be time better spent if we do not let our memories become reduced a never-ending tape loop of the "I Have a Dream" speech. It was a powerful display of emotional, inspirational rhetoric and has a rightful place as one of the best feats of oratorical power ever given. But there are many other speeches of King's on many other topics also worth remembering.
Roughly a year before his assassination, King gave an address he titled Beyond Vietnam -- A Time to Break Silence. It is with a few of these equally inspirational words that I conclude here.
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: "Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?" "Why are you joining the voices of dissent?" "Peace and civil rights don't mix," they say. "Aren't you hurting the cause of your people," they ask?
And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.