Un-sainting Martin

January 15, 2006
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

Let me share with you a reading from our hymnal by Clinton Lee Scott:

Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the direction of their vision.
It is easier to blindly venerate the saints than to learn the human quality of their sainthood.
It is easier to glorify the heroes of the race than to give weight to their examples.
To worship the wise is much easier than to profit by their wisdom.
Great leaders are honored, not by adulation, but by sharing their insights and values.
Grandchildren of those who stoned the prophet sometimes gather up the stones to build the prophet' s monument.
Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the direction of their vision.

Quite a little kick in the pants, isn' t it?

But worth hearing, worth sober and sincere reflection especially today, as we honor a prophet from our recent past, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His friends called him "Martin" and they called him "Doc."

The more I learn about Martin, the more I am staggered by his strength, by his clarity of vision, by his courage, and by his rockbound religious faith. This is a man who said at the eulogy of Unitarian minister James Reeb, who had been murdered by racist sociopaths while on a freedom march in Alabama,

"in spite of the tensions and uncertainties of this period, something profoundly meaningful is taking place." He was that committed to non-violence. His faith that humans would turn away from hatred and ignorance and toward ways of justice was that strong. He spoke from this place of strength and this conviction again and again in public, even knowing that he himself was likely to be murdered.

Martin lived in the eye of the storm of the violent time that was the civil rights era, and it cannot be said that he never wavered in his faith; in fact, in his final days he became deeply depressed by the possibility that perhaps all movements for social change would inevitably involve violence. As he was helping organize the sanitation worker' s strike in Memphis, he questioned his own commitment to peaceful forms of resistance. Many within his own camp challenged his ideas, which hurt and distracted him. He had some sleepless nights. And then he was shot dead while standing on a balcony of a Memphis hotel talking to friends below about whether or not to wear a jacket because of the chilly weather.

And that commanding, inimitable voice was silenced.

I think he was the best preacher America has ever had. I cannot recommend highly enough that you obtain a collection of his sermons called Strength To Love and read them and re-read them. But don' t read them if you want something to keep you comfortable on a cold January day. These sermons are brilliant things referencing everything from the Bible to philosophers, to works of literature and stories from King' s own life to weave testaments to hope and deliverance --- testaments whose power are staggering. As a preacher, Martin was no showy pulpit pounder; his rage has so much integrity and challenge to it, it silences and sobers one to read his words. Just reading them, I feel implicated in the crime of not working hard enough toward the vision of an earth made fair, with all her people one. Just reading them, I am convicted of being a complacent, middle class white woman who could be applying herself much more passionately to the cause of equality and justice. But I always come away energized from King' s sermons, for Martin' s special genius was to both convict and invite, as if to say, "Yes, we' re sinners living in a broken world. But God made us for something so much better, so let' s get to work." Hearing him speak in person must have been even more powerful.

Martin knew America. He loved America deeply enough to be honest about her shadow side, and he loved America enough to believe that Americans could, if we wanted to, finally achieve the ideals set out in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution. True to the expression that a prophet is never honored in his own hometown, Martin' s honesty irritated many Americans, whose consciences were scalded and whose unearned privilege was offended by the dignity of his movement. He spoke truth to power, as they say, and for his trouble his life was threatened, his house firebombed, and the FBI tailed him everywhere he went, desperately trying to discredit him and expose him as a fraud. The trouble is, he was no fraud. He was the real deal.

He was the real deal, and had he lived, he might have become a kind of Prophet Emeritus for America, remaining an eloquent, passionate thorn in the side of racist America, militaristic America, consumeristic America, soul-sick America, violence-addicted America, economically and racially segregated America. I don' t know if he would have had the energy much longer, to be honest with you. When he was murdered at the age of 39, he was exhausted and not taking care of himself. But before he could pull back and assume a lesser role in the movement, he was assassinated.

And after that, the worst possible thing eventually happened: history made him a saint, sanitized him, beatified him, put a halo on his head and sat him on a shelf to be a decoration of our past. As if his rage would be any less today. As though the era of Civil Rights is over, and we solved it, and we now judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of our character, as he famously hoped we would in his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Can you imagine what Martin would have to say today about the racial profiling following 9/11? Can you imagine what kind of Biblical texts he would have chosen to preach in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, watching his southern brothers and sisters waiting on their rooftops for help that never came, while Condoleeza Rice went shoe-shopping in Manhattan? While so many other leaders went along la la la, fiddling while Rome burned? He angered many people in the 60' s by speaking out against Vietnam War and he would undoubtedly have angered just as many today, speaking out against the war in Iraq. He would have been out there on behalf of a living wage, and against the increasing stratification between rich and poor in America.

But what happens to prophets in our culture once they' ve been martyred and subsequently sanitized and "saintified?" We give them a national holiday, ignore the bulk of whatever message they may have tried to communicate, and eventually become much more fascinated by the details of their personal lives than by the transcendent, eternal truths they spent their life blood in serving.

What happens to saints over time is that they eventually stop being revered exemplars and become not much more than celebrities, whose lives are available for our voracious scrutiny and consumption. No life, no matter how revered, is immune from this treatment. Just to use one example, in the 15th century, Theresa of Avila' s works of mystical contemplation were regarded as holy spiritual treasures. It was her work, her brilliant spiritual insights, that earned people' s reverent devotion to her. But by the 21st century, I' m learning all about how she wore her hair and what kind of relationship she had with her father. It' s so much easier to read about her childhood in Spain than to delve into the genius of her religious understanding, which would require real effort! (Who needs it!?) Everything is so democratic nowadays that we like to demystify even the mystics.

Every year, some or other fairly juicy biography appears on the market, revealing salacious tidbits about men and women generally revered by society.

We find out that Thomas Jefferson had children with his slave Sally Hemings – punching home the painful fact that the author of the Declaration of Independence actually owned other human beings as property. We learn that Abe Lincoln might have had homosexual longings for a colleague or friend, and that his wife was insane (and we come away wondering if these are the most important things to know about him). Another book suggests a hot romance between Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson' s wife, and did you know that Ben Franklin liked to sleep nude with the windows open? These books sell tons of copies and satisfy our iconoclastic desires (iconoclasm literally means "to smash icons").

And then what? When we' ve discovered that some of our saints and idols are actually fallible humans, are we then excused from heeding their call? Is that the ultimate end of the iconoclastic project? <strong> To make a prophetic human being into a saint, then demote that saint back to mortal status so that we can be so disappointed in their humanity that we don' t have to listen to them?

I almost got into this exact kind of trouble with Martin recently. He was a saint for me. The bravest, the strongest, the most eloquent. I kept Strength to Love close by, turning again and again to its pages. What a preacher. What a minister. What a scholar. He was the consummate organizer, the one who could set hearts on fire. One who could not just talk about saving the world, but could actually do it.

And then I picked up a huge biography about him – the epic new Pulitzer Prize-winning one by David Garrow -- and before you know it, I was caught up in the iconoclastic project of combing for the salacious tidbits that would prove my hero to be a hypocrite and a traitor to his own ideals. When I found out that it was true that Martin was a womanizer, oh boy, did that turn me off. I got cold and angry and judgmental reading about how much Coretta Scott, his wife, had wanted to take a public leadership role in the civil rights movement, and how often they quarreled about it because Martin felt she should be at home.

When I read about his many girlfriends – especially two women with whom he had a serious and lasting adulterous relationship – I started to give my friend Martin a real dressing down. I' m flipping through the pages and having a fight with him: "Hey Martin, woman are sisters in the struggle, okay? They' re not just ornaments for your private sexual comfort, okay?" (flip, flip) "Martin, I can' t believe this! How could you do this?"

With a heavy heart, I traveled the path of disillusionment that I am sure you have been down yourself many a time. It was as bad as finding out a lot of terrible things about Mother Theresa, like the fact that she flew first class on a private jet for many of her travels, and that she refused financial help for lepers in India because she believed in the Christ-like beauty of poverty.


Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the direction of their vision.

So what do we do? I think for a start, we stop expecting our prophets to be unblemished gods, and accept that hypocrisy and fallability are the hallmarks of the human being; no less so the prophetic man or woman. I think – and this is so important!! -- that we must decide to learn from our prophet' s mistakes and shortcomings as we take up the work of transforming society that they began. And by that, we heed the direction of their vision.

It seems to me, at last, that we get precious few real prophets who walk among us, and plenty of false ones. We know our prophets by this: that they speak truth to power whatever the cost, that they trouble our souls with their passionate indictment of the way things are, and that they urge us with all the strength of their being to put ourselves in the service of the way things ought to be. We know our prophets by the authentic sting of conscience we feel when we hear their words; a sting that actually comes from the recognition of our own moral improvability, and of our power. The implications of using our own power! We know that we are in the presence of the prophet when we sit up straighter in our chairs, and when our feet begin to tingle with the urge to move, to effect change, to do something, to join with brothers and sisters in the struggle, to stop assessing and analyzing and remaining at a critical distance, and to be used, as our prophets allow themselves to be used, in the service of a more glorious reality.

It is hard work, and sometimes intimidating work, to accept the implications of our own power and to heed the direction of the prophets' vision. In Martin, we had a true prophet, not a saint. A prophet. Let us remember today and all days that his invitation was not to scrutinize him as an individual, but to align ourselves with the dream he articulated and, in his own words, "to be about the serious business of bringing God' s kingdom to this earth."
May it be so.