Prettifying prophets

A Martin Luther King Jr. birthday remembrance

by Ken Sehested

        I have a vivid memory of that exact moment. I was in seminary, having fled my native South to Yankeedom to finish college and start theological training, embarrassed at being a Baptist, at being a white Southerner, and not entirely sure if I was a believer. But the God question wouldn’t go away.

        A mighty wrestling match was underway in my soul, trying to come to terms with my adolescent “youth revival” preacher days. Neither the Civil Rights nor the anti-Vietnam War movements had disturbed my piously-furrowed brow. Once, in high school, starting a 12-hour shift pumping gas and washing cars, I was transferring product displays and stacks of new tires outside as we prepared to open shortly before dawn. I overheard the radio saying something about Martin Luther King Jr.

        "That Martin Luther Coon, he ain’t no Christian,” the station owner muttered toward the radio. "Everywhere he go there’s trouble."

        It would be years before it occurred to me the same was likely said about Jesus.

        By the time I entered seminary the history, details and figures of the Civil Rights Movement became almost an obsession. I read everything I could get my hands on. And that’s when that vivid moment came.

        As it happens, my seminary’s earlier affirmative action commitment was taking effect, and a significant number of African American were classmates. A great many of them from the Baptist side of the ecumenical spectrum. Almost without exception, they were deeply committed to the church and actively involved in local congregations there in New York City. Since their religious culture and mine shared a good many common cultural elements—the style of preaching, the rhetoric of piety, even many of the same hymns—I puzzled over how their loyalty be so clear and mine so murky.

        Then came that vivid moment. I had purchased one of those over-sized books of photos of Dr. King and other civil rights moments and luminaries. Flipping through, I turned to a photo showing Martin and his wife Coretta sitting at a piano, their infant daughter Yolanda perched on Martin’s lap as he and Coretta sang from an open hymnal.

        The cover title was clear. It was the Broadman Hymnal. The hymnal I grew up with. Published by the Southern Baptist Convention (the same body whose Executive Committee voted down a resolution of sympathy to members of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, one day after the terrorist bombing in 1963 that killed four young children). At one time I could quote from memory the page number of dozens of titles in that hymnal. As I came to discover, a good many churches that hosted Civil Rights Movement mass meetings—churches that were threatened by cross-burning Klan torches—did their singing from the Broadman. And I also learned that terrorism on American soil has a long history.

        That moment—that photo—stands among my life’s greatest epiphanies. I came to realize that the language of faith can have many different, even competing meanings, just as any chemical compound, minus even one element, turns into something else altogether.

        The annual commemoration of Dr. King’s birthday provides a perennial occasion to remember the dream that still beckons both church and civil society. And not just in the US: I’ve listened to children in Baghdad sing “We Shall Overcome” in Arabic, and read similar accounts from the Berlin Wall and Tiananmen Square in Beijing, to South Africa’s Soweto Township, even in North Korea. A comic book-style telling of the Montgomery bus boycott, first published in 1958, was translated into Arabic in 2008 and circulated widely during the recent democracy struggle in Egypt.

        Yet Dr. King was not assassinated because he was a dreamer, though the national holiday-makers have largely domesticated and smoothed over the threat to he represented. (“The most dangerous negro in the country,” according to the FBI’s assessment.) It’s a common pattern, this prettifying of prophets. Amid the recent global accolades for the life and legacy of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, including from President Obama, came the leak that Mandela’s name was on a US government terrorist watch list until 2008.

        Admiring Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream is not the same as being captured by it. It is not only possible but common to respect the man but relinquish the mission, to revere the dreamer but renege on the dream  . . . such that it turns into something else entirely.

©ken sehested @