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Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Humanity of Heroes

Last semester during a library instruction session for my students at Keene State, the librarian clicked on a website with a URL of It seemed an obvious choice for information about one of America’s heroes. It did not take long however for the students to realize the website was intended to defame King as a plagiarizing, adulterous communist who brought shame to our nation with his scandalous acts. For someone like me who grew up revering Dr. King, it was downright maddening to once again witness the lack of any political or historical context when assessing the content of his character and his impact. But nor am I suggesting we whitewash Martin Luther King, Jr. tempting though it may be. There are always critics willing to inflate the mistakes and missteps of prophets to undermine the truths they speak to power, but it is far more powerful to follow in the footsteps of Jacob who wrestles with the angel who appears before him, and emerges from that tussle with a blessing and a limp. As much as we may ache for our heroes to be devoid of character flaws or vulnerability, a hero devoid of human complexity is not one we can even try to emulate.

The writer and former yeshiva student Avi Steinberg writes of the Hebrew prophets King drew inspiration from. Many were criminals—and not just for their revolutionary ideas. Isaiah, like many brilliant preachers, had a weakness for indecent exposure. Elisha committed first-degree murder when someone made fun of his hair. Abraham did time; Joseph did time; Jeremiah did time; Daniel did time. So did Samson. Jacob was a con man who spent most of his life on the lam. Both Moses and Elijah were fugitives for committing murder. And so was David until he returned with a loyal band of outlaws. The prophet Hosea had a predilection for hookers. Nearly every single one of the prophets was either a criminal or had spent time among criminals.

When we think of heroes, sometimes we idealize as much as idolize them; but as Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen puts it, “Most heroic journeys involve going through a dark place—through mountain caverns, the underworld or labyrinthine passages to emerge finally, into the light.”

Perhaps heroism demands the difficult passage, traveling though one’s shadow side to reach an illumined place. To be at the mercy of human failing, the predilections of ego, the hunger for relief, the compulsions of achievement and the singlemindedness of vision is what carves into the outcroppings of rocks the prophet’s path toward justice.

Were it all about hearing God’s word on a mountaintop and simply relaying the message to the people, we would not be a society still riven by idolatries of gold and the desecrations of self-will.

If we recall the story of Moses journeying to the top of Mount Sinai, God summons Moses in verse twelve of chapter twenty-four, and then gives explicit instructions about the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant, the curtain, the altar, the oil for the lamp, vestments and daily offerings. Finally God gets around to the Sabbath law but by now the people in the foothills have grown restless as is our human wont; during the delay they go to Aaron, Moses’ brother who bids them to remove their gold jewelry which he smelts into the shape of a calf.

In the seventh verse of the thirty-second chapter of Exodus, God rages, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them.” Moses implores God, “’Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster’ …and the Lord changed his mind.”(vs.12-14)

The Lord doesn’t forget what the people have done; God remembers instead the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, to multiply their descendants like the stars of heaven.

Thus the narrative instructs us not in the art of denial but the meaning of covenant. The people in their restlessness waver and so does God. It is Moses who summons the courage to implore God to recall God’s end of the bargain.
We have in this legendary account a man brave enough to challenge the forces of ultimate power, a spiritual forebear of Martin Luther King Jr., who like Moses faced the wrath of powers unimaginably strong. Not just sheriffs and segregationists with vitriol and dogs unleashed, but the full force of institutionalized racism no less catastrophic than an infuriated god.

On the tableau of biblical landscape Moses appears writ large as a human savior who delivers his people from the throes of slavery and then the throes of a capricious and demanding god. Yet this is the same Moses, who as a younger man “went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”(Ex 2:11-12) But the next day when another Hebrew indicated he knew, Moses went on the lam.

Part of what made Martin Luther King, Jr. so heroic was his ability, lo, his unwavering commitment to nonviolent resistance. As much brutality as he faced, he never struck back nor did he condone violence among the ranks of oppressed African Americans who bore the lash as well. When King’s home was attacked, when his life was threatened, when he witnessed the injury to and fatal attacks on others, he still refused to take up arms, understanding to do so would undermine not his credibility but his purpose. He knew to preach the importance of recognizing each person’s humanity meant he could not practice dehumanizing violence himself.
But let us consider the contortions any of us would go through to avoid striking back. It’s easy to pontificate. I espouse nonviolence all the time, but if I am honest, were someone to hurt my dog, or someone I love, it would take a force greater than my dog’s pull, and that is fierce, let me tell you, to keep me from hurting back. So when I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., day after day after day, for years, practicing such restraint in the face of continual assault, he is nothing short of heroic.

So what are we to make of his plagiarism? The historian Ralph Luker, one of two scholars “responsible for directing research on Martin Luther King's early life for the Martin Luther King Papers Project” wrote:
What became increasingly clear as we worked through the papers from King's early career is that there were serious problems of plagiarism in his academic work.… the pattern seemed to be that the more familiar King was with a subject, the less likely he was to plagiarize. On matters that were fairly alien to his experience, he borrowed heavily from others and often with only the slightest wink of attribution.…the further King went in his academic career, the more deeply ingrained the patterns of borrowing language without clear attribution became. Thus, the plagiarism in his dissertation seemed to be, by then, the product of his long established practice.
…Two things, it seems … were going on. First, King was a charming young guy, intent on returning to his professors the kind of work they expected of him.… So, the roots of King's plagiary lie in one of our two expectations of students. We expect them to learn what the authorities have to say about a subject. He worked the authorities' words into a seamless construct of his own creation and told his professors almost exactly what they, themselves, believed about a subject.

…The other thing … going on, particularly in King's later academic career, was that he was being patronized by his liberal, white professors.… in the context of the time, the temptation to over-reward a charming young African American student who told his liberal white professors in the North almost exactly what he knew they already deeply believed about a subject was simply overwhelming.

…Had he pursued an academic career, his heavy reliance on the authorities, often without citing them, could have been fatal. But in preaching, perhaps even in most public speech, genuine originality is more often fatal. A congregation, even a public audience, expects to hear and responds to the word once delivered to the fathers [and mothers]. It is the familiar that resonates with us.…especially the familiar that appeals to the best in us, is what we long to hear.

And what of his infidelities, sexual indiscretions that sadly enough pepper the lives of many in the public eye? No doubt the scrutiny Martin Luther King faced because he so brazenly challenged the Jim Crow status quo, led to the discovery and publicizing of his peccadillos. J. Edgar Hoover unleashed FBI agents as viciously as Bull Connor unleashed fire hoses and German Shepherds. Wiretaps and surveillance dogged King with the constancy of epithets hurled and threats made.

When I studied the life and work of King in a course about him during divinity school, my own response to his infidelity changed. Finally comprehending the burden placed on his shoulders, the grueling nonstop pace of his life, the constant risk, the relentless demands, and unprecedented expectations placed on him before age of thirty made me understand the human hunger—not simply for sexual gratification or adoration—but to simply shut the world out for a few minutes and lose oneself in carnality to stop the endless pressure for a moment. It’s not my place to make excuses, but as someone who idolized King when I was a child, it is helpful as an adult to understand that his iconic status did not exempt him from the frailties and releases of the flesh. In fact that very status may have plunged King deeper into them.

King’s later writings make clear his awareness that racism was inextricably bound to militarism and industrial not just personal exploitation. The later speeches attest to his weariness, perhaps disillusionment. He expended several lifetimes of effort in a less than a score of years. He traveled to India to meet Gandhi; he went to Washington to meet with the President, the Attorney General, to address a nation. He marched with striking garbage collectors and bus boycotters. He prayed with children and over them when they died in a church bombing. From his mid-twenties, he did not leave his house or his family without knowing the probability of death. Perhaps more than any other twentieth century American, Martin Luther King relinquished the possibility of a personal life, of an unexamined life, in order to take up the mantle of prophet.

We don’t encounter many prophets in this era though there is no shortage of pundits. But prophecy demands far more than an opinion or the great release of emotive gas we have grown used to hearing escape media mouths. Prophecy demands almost unimaginable courage, nothing less than Moses on a mountaintop taking on God. That’s what prophets do: speak truth to power. Eliot Spitzer as New York State’s attorney general took on the banking industry. Did he cheat on his wife and hire prostitutes? Yes. And if we are to believe the documentary, “Inside Job,” which chronicles the recent financial crisis, so do scores of Wall Street financiers. The film documents bank budget line items devoted to escorts and entertainment. In the same way it was easier for J. Edgar Hoover to attempt to discredit King for his womanizing and so-called communist sympathizing than it was to destroy the allegiance of millions who depended on him to lead them into the Promised Land, it was easier for Spitzer’s political opponents to undermine him for hiring prostitutes than it was to dismantle the public service he provided through financial regulation.

Prophets are neither superhuman nor simply mouthpieces for God channeling divine exhortation or warning. They speak at their own peril, risking ire from all corners to ignite the fires of truth. When God chose Moses to liberate the Hebrews from slavery and then summoned him up the mountain to receive the tablets that would seal the covenant, God chose a man whose courage was matched by his own ire at the sight of injustice. Perhaps God recognized in Moses a bit of Godself.

As we commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. let us not seek to deny his shortcomings and his imperfection under pressure. Let us lift up the courage he exemplified, the willingness to be human on a world stage. Let us recognize his vulnerability in ours and seek the courage and clarity necessary to neither yield nor succumb to injustice. Amen.

Closing words
Though the popular preacher, speaker or student may say what is familiar, what we long to hear, what the prophet says is enduring.

The words attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people” remain heartbreakingly true. And whether he originated the line or rephrased the sentiment a hundred times more, his willingness to say it over and over to good people who stayed silent bespeaks a bravery heroic still.