I had been thinking about the song “The Cult of Personality” by Living Colour this past week in anticipation for a class this week. In the lyrics, the band describes the thin line between hero and villain when viewed from the perspective of adherents. The use of snippets of speeches by Malcolm X, John Kennedy, and Franklin Roosevelt helps to reinforce this point. Add the crazy guitar riffs and the driving bass, my rock’n roll heart could not help but reflect on the series of posts that have flooded my Facebook news feed. As we celebrate Martin Luther King, I was struck by all the folks who posted King quotations, either with or without a picture of the icon (in one case, there was an icon). I do not stand in judgement of the posts since many of them help remind us of how far we still have to go. But I have worried that King, the man, has become King, the bumpersticker. In our social media age, I am not shocked as much as I am saddened.
I have often told my students that had King lived we would likely not have a national holiday in his honor and we would most definitely have come to see him in a different light. The man who died while in Memphis defending workers’ rights, including pay, of garbage collectors as part of the Poor People’s campaign would have had a hard time making a claim about the sin of consumerism or greed in America. King had started to move in the direction of confrontation on these economic issues on the day he died and he would have likely pushed harder for us to see how an economic injustice to one was an injustice to all. If the bullet had not taken his life, the complex thinker who connected the war in Southeast Asia to the plight of segregated life in the America would have continued to force us to recognize our inconsistencies. He would have chastised us for focusing on the “dream” segment at the end of the March on Washington speech and not the real reason for the speech: the promise of the American dream is not enough without tangible access to its benefits. Before his death, King grew uncomfortable with the “dream” portion of the speech because it caused too many to see an easy exit from the tough work of reconciliation. We have not accomplished the goal of change if we celebrate sitting next to each other in class. The prophet spoke clearly when he challenged our assumptions about wealth in God’s kingdom.
We would have come to know the details of the human King. All the things we have learned in hindsight would have made their way into the public domain while he was alive. We want our prophets to be perfect because we have told ourselves that is the only way to be in conversation with the divine. The flawed King was not a prophet for showing us our shortcomings on race – almost any African American preacher or lawyer worth a nickel had been saying something similar for more than a century. No, this prophet saw connections between unlikely subjects. What a garbage worker makes affects all of us, and if he cannot make a living wage, we have failed him as a society. We don’t make national holidays for those kinds of prophets. So King’s death froze him, before he could turn the movement in a different direction, and we decided to narrow his message into soundbites to make us feel better about how far we have come. Followers create the cult of personality. We have domesticated King into our own image.
The preacher King saw a different way. The kingdom of God requires faithfulness not perfection. Faithfulness to confront the demeaning stigma of poverty with compassion rather than blame. Faithfulness to address injustice in a system that believes more in efficiency that human connections. Faithfulness to stand in the face of resistance that reveals where we place our true values. Faithfulness to see the suffering of creation as a condemnation on our practices. Faithfulness to do all of these things even when we cannot be perfect enough to do any of them well.