Every year he grows more ceremonial, distant, symbolic, less alive. It is the fate of heroes. Their pictures are relegated to banners, their words become clichés, their very names become streets and boulevards instead of a living presence. Icons. Washington, Lincoln, Lee, Martin Luther King. . . . Our familiarity with them may not breed contempt exactly, but a kind of boredom, and indifference. Haven't we heard it all before?
Maybe, but have we listened before? How long has it been since we've really heard his words and felt their force? And their continuing, insistent relevance. Instead our heroes become fit subjects for dry-as-dust doctoral dissertations and the endless re-evaluations called historical revisionism.
It's now been explained that the civil-rights movement used religious ideas for political ends -- which is a popular thesis among the political scientists who have studied its success. It never seems to dawn on these experts that maybe it wasn't the protesters who used religious ideas but the ideas that used them.
Some ideas are so powerful that they cannot be resisted. They're less ideas than imperatives. Because they are not imposed from without but, once planted, grow from within. Once heard, really heard, they become inseparable from our own thoughts, conscience, fulfillment. It's not as if we had a choice in the matter. We just can't deny some ideas -- and ideals. They compel, the way love and justice and truth compel.
No wonder the prophet denies that it is he who is speaking or wants to speak. On the contrary, he is compelled to speak. He has no choice. And the rest of us find ourselves compelled to listen sooner or later -- unless we can manage to stay caught up in the everyday, in boredom and indifference, in political sophistication.
Prophets are associated with protest, with fiery words and wonders. We forget that the prophet is also a comforter, and that if he tears apart our easy preconceptions, it is to reconcile us with the truth he has to utter, and with our better, different, changed selves.
From his first appearance on the national stage and in the national consciousness -- the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s -- this black Baptist preacher out of the South kept his eye on the prize: not victory over others, but reconciliation with others.
The young minister's message back then had a lot more to do with Exodus than Marx, with joining together rather than rending apart.