Today as we commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s easy to forget how despised King was in his own time by many on the right and the left, by many within the church and outside it. As the frequency of his public speeches increased toward the end of his life so did his visible rage; as his preaching evolved in the last years, he moved from what Richard Lischer has called a “homiletics of identification” to a “homiletics of confrontation.”
The radical politics that King envisioned—for the church and the nation—did not endear him to either; it got him killed.
As author Tim Tyson has bluntly put it: “In the years since his murder, we have transformed King into a kind of innocuous black Santa Claus, genial and vacant, a benign vessel that can be filled with whatever generic good wishes the occasion dictates . . .The radicalism of Dr. King’s thought, the militancy of his methods, and the rebuke that he offered to American capitalism have given way to depictions of a man who never existed, caricatures invented after his death.”
Today all over America, preachers and politicians will wax rhapsodic over the “I Have a Dream” speech (the palatable, overly familiar parts of it). There will be marches and parades, with blacks and whites peacefully, optimistically walking hand in hand. These will be earnest gestures of mutual respect and goodwill which I don’t mean to belittle. But after the festivities, too many of us will retreat back into lives of segregated comfort and indifference, unable or unwilling to recognize, as King himself did in 1957, that “we can’t solve our problems now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.”
More than 50 years later we still can’t quite absorb those words. We prefer the “other” MLK–the one who affirms our own outrage at racial inequality. But when Martin insists that such injustice is inextricably linked to an economic system that makes our comfortable lives possible, even as it exploits, debases, and erases the downtrodden and dispossessed, we get nervous. We don’t want the justice that King dreamed of to cost us anything.
But of course it will. Another great martyr of the church, Archbishop Oscar Romero, saw it this way, ten years after the murder of King and two years before his own death by an assassin’s bullet:
Even when they call us mad, when they call us subversives and communists and all the epithets they put on us, we know that we only preach the subversive witness of the Beatitudes, which has turned everything upside down to proclaim blessed the poor, blessed the thirsting for justice, blessed the suffering.
Blessing the poor and suffering and those who thirst for justice: this is the upside-down work of the Kingdom that the powers will not bless–that the powers, in fact, will seek to crush at every turn. (Can we remember on this day that our own government tried to blackmail King into committing suicide?).
In all their humanness–their moral frailty and their exquisite courage–Romero, King, and a long line of saints and martyrs have borne witness to the madness of peaceableness in the midst of violence; of subversive love in the face of all-consuming hatred. And in death, in bodies brutalized by systems propped up by fear, they summon us to our own mad, subversive witness against the powers.
I wrote this piece last year for the Ekklesia Project website.