Don’t Call Us Saints

Lebanon, Tennessee

Every once in a while I hear someone say something in passing that sticks with me for years, though I’ll never find the proper attribution. I think it was in an NPR interview years ago that I heard someone point out that as a society we tend to admire living conservatives and dead radicals. 

That still rings true to me, and it bears some thought. Today is the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, and it also marks a tipping point— he has now been dead longer than he was alive. He died at the age of thirty-nine on April 4, 1968, three weeks to the day before I was born. I must have passed him in the waiting room.

Listen, as you hear the news stories and the tributes to the frequency of the phrase “slain civil rights leader.” That is how we identify him now, in spite of the fact that he spent the latter half of his ministry preaching more against the sins of poverty and war than racism. 

We’ve made significant progress with issues of racism, and it is important to celebrate that, though we still have a long way to go. As a culture, though, I think we are less threatened these days by questions of race than we are by questions of war and poverty, and the inextricable link between the two, both in Dr. King’s time and in ours.

April 4, 1967, a year before his death, also happens to be the day that Dr. King gave his sermon A Time to Break the Silence, and it certainly still speaks to me in my time.

When I was in high school and college in Virginia, the state celebrated “Lee-Jackson-King Day, honoring two confederate generals on the same day.  With that notable exception, though, Dr. King is at least officially respected by our nation these days. He has a national holiday. His legacy is taught in elementary schools. It’s hard to remember or to believe the truth that in his time he was widely reviled as a troublemaker and hated by most people in the United States.

But dead radicals are so much safer than living ones. We can sanitize their stories, emphasize the parts that have become safer, skip the parts that make us uncomfortable.

Dorothy Day, the famed activist and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement,  said “Don’t call us saints. We don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” I wonder if we have made Dr. King a saint— and thereby dismissed him.

In the words of Harvard professor emeritus Charles Willie: 

By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise. As I have said on many occasions, honoring Martin Luther King Jr. would be dishonorable if we remember the man and forget his mission. For those among us who believe in him, his work now must become our own.

Considering the question of the sanitizing of Dr. King leads naturally to the same question about Dr. King’s guiding lights. Have we done the same to Gandhi? It seems to me that we have. He doesn’t seem nearly as dangerous as his teachings truly are.  

And what about Dr. King’s primary teacher and mentor? Phillips Brooks puts it this way:

In the best sense of the word, Jesus was a radical… His religion has so long been identified with conservatism… that it is almost startling sometimes to remember that all the conservatives of his own times were against him; that it was the young, free, restless, sanguine, progressive part of the people who flocked to him.

Let me be clear that I’m not trying to make a political statement here in the sense of “that side is wrong, this side is right.” My point is that where conservatism equals preserving the status quo because of our fear or greed, we are failing to live toward justice. Dr. King said, rightly, that we cannot have peace without justice, or justice without peace.

Rest in peace, Dr. King.  

Explore posts in the same categories: Peace Work

5 Comments on “Don’t Call Us Saints”

  1. Mitch Says:

    Hi David!

    You taught me a history lesson that I really should have known – and now I will not forget as Kym celebrates her 40th birthday today. Where you passed in the waiting room, Kym might have been looking through the glass at Dr. King in a revolving door.

    How true and challenging are the words “For those among us who believe in him, his work now must become our own”. This is not an easy task. I think of the fate met by the majority of Jesus’ disciples. They knew by following and teaching His beliefs would likely lead to their own ghastly ends. But they saw in His teachings a message so powerful, that they were compelled to stay the path.

    We can and should hold dear our hope, faith and dreams for a better world. It is then through a lot of work of our own that we live them out! ~Hope you don’t mind the paraphrasing 🙂

    Peace to you,

  2. stephen taylor Says:

    Hi David! 40 years ago I was 11 and I remember our evening TV shows being interrupted by the news bulletin of Dr. King’s death. I remember that I was just beginning to become aware of the world beyond my ‘Wonder Years’ neighborhood. My conservative parents were tight lipped at the grim news, but they appeared more frightened than sad. They knew the shit had hit the fan, and they were afraid the splash would reach their world. All that night there was news of violence in cities frighteningly close to us.

    I learned later that in Indianapolis a different choice had been made, and I was heartened to hear Obama speak of this on Thursday. Robert Kennedy had broken the news of the assasination to a crowd of people in a very rough inner city neighborhood there. He spoke to the crowd from his heart and seemed to give them a vent for their grief. For before them was a man they loved, whose brother had been so recently cut down by a bullet, telling them they had choices other than violence and retaliation.

    “For those of you who are black – considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible – you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

    We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization – black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

    For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man…” Kennedy offered the choices quietly and humbly, and everyone knew which he planned to follow. He had been choosing the latter for five years.

    He closed by saying, “So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love – a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.
    But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.”

    Indianapolis was quiet that night.
    Link to the entire speech:

  3. I remember hearing people say that they were glad that he was gone. F ew even said that they would have liked to have been the one to ‘pull the trigger’. The thought of these people was that the civil rights movement might end if it had no leaders.

    I was actually in Meridian the night of the big march there and never even knew about it until we heard it on the radio the next day.

    I think you are right about how history puts such people on pedestals and makes them seem less real. It also names so many of their accomplishments that it can seem to indicate that the work is all done when there is so much more left to do.

  4. bothwellsblog Says:

    Thanks for this one, David. It’s the most thoughtful reflection on the 40th anniversary that I’ve read anywhere.

    “got a lot of work to do” indeed.

  5. lowerdryad Says:

    Thanks for the good input. Especially for reprinting Robert F. Kennedy’s words, Stephen.

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