Icon by Dr. Robert Lentz, OFM. Via Trinity Stores.
Yesterday my overwhelmingly white Episcopal parish marked the secular observance of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday by singing the hymn "Blessed Martin, pastor, prophet." As happens every year, I cringed inwardly. Let's see if I can explicate why our well-meaning appropriation of Dr. King causes me such discomfort.
In the 21st century United States, you don't get a national holiday, and recognition by religious congregations, for being a shit-disturber. Even if you were one. (To my way of thinking we mark at least one other such, in late December.) If you were a shit-disturber, we do our best to milk the revolutionary content out of your story.
"Blessed Martin" risks this I fear. The tune is a little saccharin for my taste, but what really sets me off is that some of the lyrics, though historically accurate in their intent, are extremely comforting to those of us, mostly white, who would love to domesticate the good Doctor. (The full hymn lyric doesn't seem to exist anywhere on the net; I've reproduced it at the end of this post for readers' reference.)
- "Holy God, you raise up prophets; Praise and honor do we sing..." I'm reminded that "prophets are without honor in their own country." We don't like them much when they are around. Dr. King was jailed, spat on, and hounded by the F.B.I. throughout his life. Much of the country considered him a "communist agitator." Some, such as the so-called "Christian Party" still does -- I don't link to hate sites, but Google the names if you doubt this.
- "your humble servant" Dr. King undoubtedly was humble toward his Creator, but principalities and powers, sheriffs, governors and even the Kennedy brothers, found him dogged and insistent that they render justice. We would do well to remember that King; his courage in the face of the unjust is what we need to find and emulate.
- "Moral conscience of his nation, reconciling black and white..." and " Teacher of Christ-like non-violence to the outcast, poor and meek" Dr. King certainly sought to reconcile black and white -- by encouraging Black folks to demand that white folks get their feet off Black folks' necks. Here's his take on non-violence from an article in Christian Century.
- "Preacher of Christ's love of neighbor, He won Nobel's prize for peace; Peoples, beat your swords to ploughshares, Wars' txixt nations all shall cease." In 1967, against the advice of that era's "moderates," King spoke out calling for an end to the United State's war in Vietnam. In a speech delivered at Riverside Church to assembled religious dignitaries, he insisted:
- Finally, the refrain: "You the mountaintop did see..." I wasn't Biblically literate enough to immediately catch the reference here. Maybe most of us are. When King declaimed "I've been to the mountaintop," he was referring to Moses catching a faraway glimpse of the land promised by God to the wandering Hebrew tribes that their leader, Moses himself, would never enter. King spoke these words in an address to striking Memphis sanitation workers the night before he was shot by a sniper. He was revving the crowd up for a non-violent march that everyone feared might be met with violence. He was very down to earth and then he soared.