The Challenging Sainthood of Dr. King

I remember hearing Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech as a little kid. I remember well, it was the early days of CD-ROM software for the computer, and our school had received a donation of an early digital encyclopedia. The article about Dr. King included a recording. Not the whole speech, not the controversial bits about America writing a bad check. The snippet was short, just the most famous lines, the refrain “I have a dream” I have a dream.

If all you knew of Brother Martin Luther King was the “I have a dream speech,” if all you heard was the beautiful hopeful refrain at the end, you might think of him as a great orator, as a preacher who could inspire folks to work for equality. And for a long time, as a white kid, growing up in the white suburbs of Denver, that’s how I thought of him. He even name-checks Colorado in the speech, how great is that?

I’m grateful to our parishioner Bob Lowes for compiling the MLK sermon quotes we had as our second reading. You get a fuller sense of Dr. King in those quotes. A reading like we had from Dr. King’s work wasn’t available at my elementary school. I worry about what parts of Dr. King we celebrate, about what we do to his work.

We have sainted Dr. King. That is literally true in our denomination. He has a feast day. We’re using the readings from his feast day for our lessons today, even though the Episcopal Church officially marks the feast on the anniversary of his death in April. We have sainted Martin Luther King, literally as Episcopalians, but figuratively as Americans. He has a monument on the National Mall. Almost every major American city has a Martin Luther King Boulevard.

But there is a danger in sainthood.

The folks from our congregation who traveled this last summer to El Salvador can tell you about the controversial sainthood of Oscar Romero. We heard from a number of folks who worried about the newly sainted archbishop. People who worked with Romero, who organized for the rights of the poor with the archbishop are concerned that sainthood is being used to sanitize. Folks aren’t happy that San Romero has been so heavily celebrated by the whole country, because they worry that his message will get lost. Salvadorans are concerned that human rights are still not respected. The poor are still disenfranchised. They don’t want his message to be lost.

Sound familiar?

There are literally Dr. King statues in Episcopal Churches, and not just the black churches. A historically white Episcopal church in St. Louis features a Dr. King stained glass window. Brother Martin has become the patron saint of civil rights, but there are some folks who worry we are forgetting.

These days in the Episcopal Church we consider Martin Luther King to be a martyr and a saint, but that hasn’t always been the case. Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham Jail was written, in part, to the Episcopal Bishops of Alabama. Bishop Carpenter and his elected successor George Murray (along with Methodist, Catholic, Jewish, and Baptist colleagues) had published “A Call For Unity.” They called Dr. King an outsider, and asked him to leave the state. They called his demonstrations “unwise and untimely.”

We all like to imagine, if he were alive today, that we would be marching in the streets with Dr. King. There were Episcopalians who marched with Dr. King. There were Episcopalians, particularly black Episcopalians who did leading work in the Civil Rights era. But it does a disservice to the work of Civil Rights if we forget the opposition, that looked like many of us, white moderates. If we forget that some of our grandparents doubted Martin’s effectiveness as a leader. If we forget the hardship, if we forget that he spent nights in tears, worried for his safety, worried for his family. If we forget the divisions, if we forget the voices of moderation that would ask him to set down the work, to wait, if we forget, we risk missing the whole of his work. We do him a disservice.

If we make just Dr. King a saint, we miss out on the other folks upon whom the Civil Rights achievements depend. We should also remember saints like Pauli Murray, whose thesis at Howard Law School became the foundation for Brown v. Board of Education. We should remember saints like Bayard Rustin, the gay black man without whom the march on Washington, where Dr. King spoke about his dream, without Bayard Rustin, it never would have happened.

And it does a disservice to Dr. King to only listen to the pretty parts of his speeches, to only talk about the dream, and skip over the grittier work of his life. It makes him seem a saint aloof, unreachable, an example that today’s leaders could never aspire to reach. If we try and clean up the context, we also run the risk of forgetting that the work is ongoing. Making him a saint might excuse us from continuing the work for human rights.

Martin and Moses

The text we have from the Book of Numbers was one of the last Dr. King spoke about. He had traveled to Memphis, to support a strike by the city’s sanitation workers.

For Dr. King, the struggle for civil rights, the struggle for racial justice and the struggle for economic justice, they were inextricably linked. He preached his final sermon at Mason Temple in Memphis the night before he died. The sermon finished eerily with these words:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

Brother Martin put himself in Moses’ shoes. He knew the work would outlive him. He knew the work was bigger than him, the cause was bigger than him, the struggle was bigger than him. It is a sign of a real leader, when they know it isn’t all about them.

Moses says to Joshua, the one who will take up his mantle (to use a Biblical metaphor from a few generations later). Moses says to Joshua, with all of God’s people looking on. “Be strong and fearless…The Lord is the one who is marching before you!” God will be with you. God won’t let you down.

Of course we should celebrate Dr. King. Of course he should be a saint, of course school children should hear about his dream. But don’t let his sainthood distract you from his humanity. Don’t forget he was flawed and feeble just like you. Don’t let the work be just about him. Dr. King would point you beyond his own words, beyond his own struggles.

The next generation has to take up the mantle. If we are ever to reach that promised land, if we are ever to build the beloved community, if we are to beat back the organized racism that has arisen again in this land, if we are to beat back the structural inequality that still leaves so many behind, we can’t just leave it to Martin. We have to trust that Dr. King’s work was God’s work, and that God is still with us. God is still out there, ahead of us, marching.

Don’t let sainted Martin Luther King be sanitized. Don’t stop at the words “I have a dream.” Meditate on the words we spoke together, some of them harder to say than “I have a dream.” Remember he laid down his life so that a cause could go on. Make the links between the history and the present reality.

Dr. King’s Legacy

All over our country tomorrow, plays will be staged. Documentaries will be screened. We will meditate on the “Life and Legacy of Dr. King.” What is Dr. King’s legacy? What is it? Is it beautiful words about a dream? Is his legacy desegregation? Is it the election of the first black president? Surely these are a part of the legacy of the Civil Rights era.

But I wonder, is the final chapter of Dr. King’s legacy yet to be written? Will we take up the banner? Will we link arms in the streets? Will we march, trusting that God is already out there ahead of us? Will we, like Martin, dare to dream?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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