Using Our Sanitized Imagination: Why We Don’t Really Like MLK

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On January 15 Martin Luther King Jr would have turned 85 years old. This coming Monday our nation will pause, as it does every third Monday in January, to remember through word and deed (though mostly word) King’s transformative life and leadership. Or at least we will remember the parts that suit our particular and parochial political visions and philosophical worldviews. Indeed King was a civil rights leader, a peace activist, and someone who abhorred poverty. He was all of these things and more. But depending on who you speak to about him, you will only see facets of his complex mission and self-identity.

There will be conservatives who will remember nothing more than King’s dream that content of character, not color, will matter most in the Land of the Free. Many liberals, secular in their outlook, will reduce King to civil rights activism, not appreciating that he was foremost a Baptist preacher motivated by the social imperatives of the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. This interestingly selective appropriation is not peculiar to King’s legacy. Even now conservatives and liberals are proof-texting sections of Pope Francis’ words and actions to either loathe or love him based not in the composite reality of who he is, but who they want him to be. To be sure, people of varying ages and places have done that with Jesus, turning the Creator into our preferable images. And similar to the old saying, if they did it to Jesus, surely they’ll do it us.

Pastor-theologian Leslie Callahan highlights the discomfort some have with King’s prophetic vista for the nation in a blog she posted this morning. There she writes, “University of Pennsylvania professor and poet Herman Beavers was invited and then disinvited to give a lecture on Martin Luther King at Moorestown High School in New Jersey.”  Professor Beavers was disinvited because there was fear that he would share the truth about the things King prophesied against, and how such prophetic witness is necessary in confronting contemporary social sins like racism, classism, and militarism. We like King as long as his baritone words stir our souls. We are afraid of him if those same words stir us to action.

We don’t have to fully agree with every strategy or action or philosophy King espoused. King is not divine, messianic, and above reproach. I certainly do not follow his theological liberalism and have profound issues with some of his gender politics. But to dismiss him in all of his complexity because his faith or his moral frailty or his radical (yes, radical) dreams are too much for us to digest is not defendable.

Until extremists on the left and right, and all of us in between, see King for who he really was and hear what he really said, we’ll continue to have sanitized imaginations and fail to truly honor his life and legacy, one that gave all so that this “nation could arise and live out the true meaning of its creed.”

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