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.
Listen to what he said in the midst of his first confrontation with the already crumbling power of Jim Crow. How easily he could have cast out these demons and proclaimed the moral superiority of Us over Them. But he knew better, and he tried to get those he led to understand better, too:
"A boycott is just a means to an end. A boycott is merely a means to say, 'I don't like it.' It is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor but the end is reconciliation. The end is the creation of a beloved community . . . the creation of a society where men will live together as brothers . . . not retaliation but redemption. That is the end we are trying to reach."
His cause wasn't just a boycott. It wasn't just a political or economic or social struggle. The powers and principalities involved were of a different order, and so would be the victory.
In July of 1956, Martin Luther King would carry the same message to the American Baptist Assembly, but with a twist. The church, he proclaimed, "is the Body of Christ. So when the church is true to its nature it knows neither division nor disunity. But I am disturbed by what you are doing to the Body of Christ."
Martin Luther King went on to contrast segregation not with integration, but with redemption. If racial segregation, he said, "is a blatant denial of the unity which we all have in Jesus Christ," then reconciliation will be the proof that "in Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile, Negro nor white, and that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth."
The biblical cadences of his speech were unmistakable, and his belief in the Beloved Community undeniable. He understood that the Christian's love for his enemies was the most potent, the most irresistible of weapons. All the economic boycotts, legal stratagems, political theories . . . those were just tactical. Love was his strategic weapon. And he knew that nothing, nothing, could stand before it, and that, with or without him, it would go marching on.
The legal victory in Montgomery came on the 13th of November, 1956, when the United States Supreme Court agreed that racial segregation on the city's buses was unconstitutional. Vindication! A great mass meeting was held the next night -- two separate meetings were needed to hold all the celebrants. It was time to exult.
But this preacher did not exult in himself or his people or even in his principles. In the familiar call and response of the black church, voices every Southerner used to grow up with as he passed a black church on a Sunday morning or Wednesday go-to-meetin' night, this son of the South exulted not in any temporal political victory but in the hope that we, all of us, would be reconciled -- with each other and with the Father of us all.
Only he put it plainer, simpler, better. He compared the white segs whom he had fought so hard, who had locked him up, who had 'bused and scorned him, with the prodigal son who had only wandered off for a while on the wrong path:
"I must still believe there is something within them that can cause them one day to come to themselves (That's right! Yes!) and rise up, walk back up the dusty road to the father's house. (Yes!) And we stand there with outstretched arms. That's the meaning of the Christian faith."
Powerful stuff. And this preacher went beyond Bible stories and Sunday School illustrations. He named names: "I believe that the Ku Klux Klan can be transformed into a clan for God's kingdom. (Yes!) I believe that the White Citizens Council can be transformed into a Right Citizens Council. (Yes!) I believe that. That's the essence of the Gospel."
It's a toss-up who was more scandalized by that kind of talk -- the kluxers and their nice respectable white-collar counterparts in the Citizens Councils, or the young SNCC organizers in the back pews who'd come down from their Northern campuses to give Marx a push. And instead found themselves confronted by all this Godtalk, by a language and worldview counter to all their assumptions -- and it was coming not from those they proposed to struggle against, but those on whose side they wanted to struggle. What a story their faces told as all of that dawned on them. They had come to convert others, but the best of them found themselves converted.
Then there were the others -- the young and impatient, the proud and angry, the ideological and sophisticated. They tended to snicker at this nice preacher innocent of their dialectic, and called him De Lawd behind his back. What could he know of the world who preached nothing but love?
But whatever Martin Luther King was, he was anything but naive. If he was gentle as the dove, he was also cunning as the serpent. Indeed, he would prove far more cunning than those who thought themselves worldly wise. If by now we have forgotten the hope he preached, if his words sound strange and new when we hear them again, maybe that's because we weren't listening the first time.
Martin Luther King's time, it turns out, is all times. That is the great advantage of a biblical point of view; it does not age. That is why his words can still take us to a whole other dimension. They are words as old as the Prophets, as urgent as today.