Christifying Martin Luther King, Jr.

April 4th marked the 40th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. While we should avail ourselves of this moment to reflect on King’s life and legacy, should we not also reflect upon how we remember that life and legacy? These acts of memory overwhelmingly fall into two categories (with a preponderance of cases under the first): 1) what Cornel West has felicitously called the “Santa Clausification” of King and 2) what I would call King’s Christification. The former involves the purification and distillation of King’s memory down to a single image of vague benevolence. The latter involves the nearly literal retelling of the Christ story with King as the protagonist. Both of these temptations of remembrance entail a gross perversion of what King’s message actually was and, perhaps more importantly, they present King in a way that hinders the use of his example as a basis for activism in our own time.

Reflecting on our collective memorialization of King, Michael Eric Dyson‘s recent book, April 4th, 1968, asks whether the assassination of King made him the figure of public memory. Dyson contends that we would hardly remember Martin at all, let alone remember him to the extent that we do, if not for his assassination. Considering how many public figures outlive their own legacies, it’s hard to argue with this conclusion. For example, imagine how differently we would think of Jesse Jackson today if he were killed during his 1988 presidential run. In light of Obama-mania, it’s amazing how little attention has been paid to what Jackson was able to accomplish twenty years ago. As we know, he didn’t take the nomination. But he was for a time the front-runner, and he did manage to gather 6.9 million votes and win 11 primaries and caucuses. Surely the fact that Jackson is still alive and has lived through a number of public humiliationsin addition to the public’s simply losing their fascination with himhas diminished the possibility of his accomplishments being remembered. So King’s early death (not to mention the circumstances surrounding his death) may simply have provided the basis for both his Santa Clausification as well as his Christification.

West’s comparison between the time-honored mythic functions of Santa Claus and the larger-than-life status that King has attained in the popular imaginary is a very apt metaphor here as well. Every year around the time of his holiday, school children around the country are made to produce countless reports, dioramas, and drawings of King. When the calendar turns to March and Black History Month is over, all of the posters and displays are at once put away only to be brought out again next year as soon as the Christmas decorations are put away. What do the children actually learn about King in the midst of this seasonal celebration? That it was he that made it possible for all people to be equal, so that no matter what color you are you can do and be anything you want! If you really believe in yourself and you work really really hard, maybe you can even grow up to be President someday! How did King accomplish this? By giving his “I Have a Dream Speech.” Before King gave the speech, many people were racist and treated people differently if they didn’t look like them, but when King gave his speech he showed all of those people that they were wrong. In that very moment, King ended racism and we could all live happily ever after. We celebrate his holiday every year so that we can give thanks and remember that King did this for us. Thankfully, King is not around to remind us that the whole thing wasn’t quite that simple.

Now, there certainly are worse stories that we could be telling our kids. And nothing is inherently wrong with story-telling and/or myth-creating practices themselves. Santa Claus, Thanksgiving, The Declaration of Independence, The Emancipation Proclamation, King: all of these things give us a shared sense of identity as citizens of the United States of America, a body of images and deeds to draw from in communicating with one another and understanding our place in the world. We can’t put away childish things if we don’t try them out in the first place. Also as adults, we can ill afford the assumption that we ever come to a point where the “childish” has definitively left us never to return. Even if these particular myths came to be naturalized and/or de-mythologized, as perhaps they should, they would likely be replaced by yet another set of equally vague and oversimplified myths. The value of a story is not to be found in its thoroughness as a description of complex socio-historical processes but rather in what Dr. Stephen T. Colbert has called its “truthiness.” Stories are worthwhile insofar as they help us to see the world around us as subject to perpetual revision on the basis of our participation. In other words, our concern with the King myth should not merely focus upon the perversions to the historical record implied therein, but rather with the much more significant fact that the familiar telling of the story may inhibit our ability to participate in social change.

So what is the social function of Santa Claus? (Spoiler alert: those of you who still don’t want to know certain facts concerning Santa should skip this paragraph). We tell children the Santa Claus myth in order to control behavior with a mechanism whose apparent authority is infinitely more just and benevolent than their actual parent(s). Acceptance of this mechanism is in many cases proportional to the degree to which children accurately perceive the flaws, humanity, and limitations of those actual parent(s). There must be someone else out there who’s got more sense than these fools, children who turn to Claus rightfully think.

Nevertheless, only in very rare cases does this hypothesis (sensible in its own right) survive the onset of puberty. In any event, sooner or later, Santa will be unveiled as little more than a trick that mommy and/or daddy played upon us. This is one of the first steps on the difficult road to adulthood. Above all, it entails the realization that all of the kindness, negligence, and even cruelty that one finds in the world exist not as a result of amorphous metaphysical forces but rather as the consequences of concrete choices made by other people who are just as confused and misguided as oneself. Therefore, the only intellectually defensible reason for perpetuating the Santa Claus myth is the fact that the revelation of Santa Claus’ non-existence is the first of a long line of dearly held beliefs that will subsequently be exposed as fraudulent. The appropriate lesson of Santa Claus is Charles Sanders Peirce’s fundamental pragmatic principle: given that any of our beliefs may very well be wrong, all other things being equal, we should believe whatever doctrine or viewpoint is the easiest to revise, amend, and/or reject.

Understanding the social utility of Santa Claus in this manner helps us to see the similar role that is played by the Santa Clausification of King. Are not children told the King myth precisely for the sake of instilling a similar mechanism of behavior control? While this mechanism likely does inhibit the performance of racist behavior to some degree, this is far from its only effect. According to the consolidation of his legacy as it is is disseminated through the media and the schools, King’s achievementswhich is really to say the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement as a wholeare depicted as having been accomplished: 1) single-handedly, 2) in a single messianic moment, and 3) by an agent who was not himself confused, misguided, and at times, wrong. In other words, in the same instant in which children are taught of King’s supernatural greatness, they are simultaneously taught that great deeds lie outside of the scope of everydayand especially their ownexperience. There could be few lessons more contrary to the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, which, lest we forget, received many of its most profound and enduring contributions from ordinary people who endeavored to reinvent the norms and conventions surrounding the most banal and trivial of daily activities: riding on the bus, eating at a restaurant, going to school, walking down the street, etc.

The other somewhat troubling temptation of remembrance with respect to King is his Christification. In fact, those, including the redoubtable Prof. West, who commit King’s Christification are often rightfully dissatisfied with the simplicity and political correctness of the image of King’s Santa Clausification. This Christification usually starts something like this: King was a radical. Contrary to what most of us learn in school, his career and life didn’t simply come to a stop after the “I Have a Dream” speech. As the 1960s went on, he spoke out directly against American imperialism in general and the Vietnam War in particularin the process rendering himself persona non grata to Lyndon Johnson whom he had previously worked with on the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. Furthermore, King condemned the decadence and affluence of American society not just for ignoring poverty and hunger in many parts of the United States and around the world but for actually profiting from that suffering. To the power elite of American society, these positions, articulated during the height of the Cold War, sounded like those of a domestic Marxist terrorist using his media platform to brainwash the American people into adopting the views of the Enemy. It was primarily for these actionsfor telling us the truth about ourselves whether we wanted to hear it or notthat King was rewarded with assassination.

Clearly, this is a much more accurate and much more enduringly interesting story concerning King than the one that is offered by Santa Clausification. Yet, the culmination of this particular way of telling the story is, as the name Christification suggests, a meditation upon King’s willingness to commit the ultimate sacrifice. In short: Martin died for our sins. Now, I can see the theological utility of this narrative in that it concretizes and exemplifies the Gospel as an event taking place not outside of, but indeed, within (recent) human history. Indeed, who doesn’t get chills down their spine when listening to King’s remarks of April 3rd, 1968? However, we should also see that this metaphysical victory comes at a naturalistic price. As a figure of revelation who freely gave his mortal life in order to achieve immortality, the prophetic King is different from Santa Claus only by virtue of a different sort of cosmology, one that is far less susceptible to revision. Thrust into the place of Christ, Martin is made into the omega, the last in his line. The Door has been closed. While it may perhaps someday open again, there is no telling when or even if that day will come. Moreover, such an occurrence cannot be provoked or predicted by human effort but only by submission to the divine will. “The Messiah will come one day after he [sic] has come,” writes Walter Benjamin. For the time being, our God has abandoned us mortalsall we have is our all too human selves. Indeed, who among us has one iota of the courage, dignity, and grace that Martin had? Who among us will willingly and deliberately submit to the ultimate sacrifice? The only problem with these questions is that they are not meant to be answered.

This narrative of deification clashes with King’s message of everyone’s universal personal responsibility to undo whatever injustice we see in the world: a thesis which patently implies that you don’t have to be God to do exactly that. Again, nothing is inherently wrong with this particular myth as a way of telling King’s story. The problem is that when we tell ourselves stories about King, whether of the Claus or Christ variety, too often we lack the ability to see what is outside these stories. A myth becomes pernicious only when we hold it too dear.

The true utility of these sorts of stories, as the Santa Claus reference suggests, is often to be found not in what the world looks like when we are enraptured believers therein, but rather in what we learn about ourselves from the process of coming to revise and/or withdraw our beliefs about these stories. When we allow ourselves not to hold King too dearand thereby to come to the realization that he was neither Claus nor Christthen we glimpse something of what Martin wanted to show us in the first place. The evil that exists in the world doesn’t simply go on “out there,” but rather dwells in the habitual actions we each performed unquestioningly in the course of our daily lives. We take the first step toward ameliorating that violence when we take account of, come to terms with, and hold ourselves responsible for our own complicity in the heinous yet largely invisible violence of the status quo. Some of the judgment that is today routinely levied upon President George W. Bush for initiating the Iraq war should also apply to middle class tax-payers (such as myself) who have enabled the war. That such an argument is an oversimplification does not make it any less true.

Change should be neither an object of nostalgia nor one of expectation; the only tense it knows is the present and its only time is now. Since Martin is not the Messiah who will return to save us no matter how many idols or temples we build in his name, we might as well consider the possibility of using that energy for saving ourselves. And that isn’t such a bad story after all.

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