Monday, January 18, 2010

Thinking of Dr King and Jesus

In meeting yesterday, I realized that Dr King has been gone for 41 years this coming April. He was 39 when he was murdered. He's been gone longer than he was here.

Then, in this morning's Star Tribune, there was a very good op-ed piece by Paul Gaston headlined "He had a dream, but there was more." In it, he reminds us that Dr King was a prophet for radical, biblical economic and political justice as well as a dreamer of love and peace. Dr King's diagnosis of the sickness of American society and the radical nature of the cure was much deeper and more pungent than the vapid "can't we all get along?" caricature of his message that predominates in the mainstream. This emasculation of Dr King's ministry began during his lifetime, such as when he was castigated for opposing the American war against the Vietnamese as "counterproductive" to the civil rights struggle, but it has gotten worse since his death.

Gaston heaps appropriate disgust with people like George Will, Rush Limbaugh, and Newt Gingrich -- people who opposed everything Dr King stood for while he was alive -- who selectively quote Dr King's words in an effort to pervert his ministry.

Gaston's point isn't novel, but it is a welcome reminder.

But what hit me today was how what has happened to Dr King and his ministry is exactly what it looks like was done to Jesus and his gospel in the years following his death. That is, the more we learn about the historical Jesus the more we understand him to be a prophet of radical political and economic reordering of society as well as a self-sacrificing, gentle preacher of love and repentance forgiveness.

The Jesus many of us learned about in Sunday School is a sanitized, feminized Jesus whose spiritual message has been torn from its concrete social milieu, resulting in a message that may comfort the afflicted but does little to afflict the comfortable. (This might have been the developmentally appropriate image of Jesus to teach to children in Sunday School, but it is appallingly inappropriate for adults.) Such an image of Jesus makes his crucifixion into punishment of a religious heretic rather than a political seditionist. He was both.

A core conclusion of the Jesus scholars is that Jesus's followers interpreted and applied his message -- and recorded it in the books of the gospels -- in a way that met the immediate needs of the post-Easter Christian community and cannot necessarily be trusted as a comprehensive record of Jesus's actual life and ministry. I do not accept the Jesus scholar's conclusions uncritically, but after seeing how Dr King's life and message has been selectively remembered, I am more sensitive to how that process might have worked after Jesus's death.

My point isn't so much that the Jesus portrayed in the gospels is wrong or inaccurate as much as it is unbalanced and selective. There is plenty of evidence of Jesus's radical social and economic critique in the record to indicate that that, too, was a central part of his ministry. To be more accurate, then, I should say that the imbalance and selectivity comes from mainstream interpretations of the gospels rather than the documents themselves.

Fortunately, the comprehensive documentary record of Dr King's life is far more likely to be preserved and easily available, but the mainstream interpretation of that record still drives the public mythology to distort Dr King's life and message into something it most certainly was not.

Similarly, those of us who are inspired by Dr King's political and economic message cannot ignore the fact that he came to that message as a minister of the Christian Gospel and a committed disciple of Jesus Christ; his prophetic social, political, and economic words and actions were the direct and necessary results of that primary commitment.

But even if it were not present, I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men -- for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?

(from "Beyond Vietnam," delivered at Riverside Church, New York, April 4, 1967 -- a year to the day before Dr King's death.)

So just as Christians have to be careful of over-spiritualizing Jesus at the loss of his social critique, Americans must be careful not to secularize Dr King at the loss of his religious core.

(Lest there be any misunderstanding: I am not saying that Dr King was the incarnation of the Living God in the way that I believe Jesus was. I am saying that the message of each -- which requires radical commitment and a willingness to die to this world -- has been hijacked to rationalize and defend a profoundly sick status quo.)

Two typos corrected and images reformatted 1-19-2010