As I write this, we are one week from the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. Come next week, I and many others will gather together to hear words of remembrance, and to march in unison to the mournful tune of the old spirituals. We will watch clips of the man speaking his most enduring words in the shadow of Lincoln. We may reflect on how far we’ve come, or how far we’ve yet to go in the realization of his ideal. But to comment on how close we are to realizing his vision is to imply that we understand it. Worse yet, it may imply that we understand the man himself. I’m not sure we do.
It is our involuntary instinct to reduce individuals, especially famous ones, to a sound bite. To us, Dr. King was the immortal crusader who sacrificed it all so that black folks and white folks could live with equal dignity. He was the supremely confident-and sometimes downright defiant- champion of integration. He was the guy who wore his heart on his sleeve and asked for no more than a decent seat on the next Greyhound back to Birmingham. For all of the bombastic eloquence of his “I have a dream” speech, there is something harmless and nonthreatening in his appearance. He almost looks cute up there! I don’t know what, but something of the past four decades has softened his legacy. The repetition of the tight, articulate, seventeen minute oration has sanitized him. But rest assured, he was not who you think he was.
Yes his heart beat for equality, but it was not the essence of his message. His vision had to do with something far more dangerous than equality. He was after unity. He didn’t want to be treated as an equal. He wanted to be treated as a brother. He didn’t want to take your seat on the bus. He wanted to sit with you. He saw in the liberation of the black minority the betterment of all creation.
More than a crusader, Martin was a prophet. As such, he deeply identified with how division afflicted the Father heart of God. This awareness broke him. But like his favorite prophet Jeremiah, it broke him and compelled him all at once. He wasn’t just out to heal a rend in the fabric of his country. I think in a way that he nor we could ever fully understand, he was out to heal a rend in the heart of his Maker. There’s nothing cute about that.