Monday, January 19, 2009

President Obama and the Legacy of Martin Luther King: Prophet or Politician?

On this day commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr., I’m thinking about failure. Obloquy. Dying with the knowledge that you have been on a mountaintop, have seen a land of promise. And that you will not enter that land.

That you must go down from the mountaintop of peace, hope, love, and joy, and slog through the lowlands of despair where the powerful heap scorn on the powerless, always and everywhere, where endless expenditure of energy for just causes is never rewarded by much discernible forward movement at all.

I’m thinking today, in other words, of the life of Jesus. Who ended up a failure. Who died on a cross, the instrument of final and public obliteration of those deemed criminals of the lowest sort in the Roman Empire. An instrument of obliteration that splayed out the body of the powerless one hung there, to show other nobodies what they might expect if they tangled with the powers that be.

Jesus died a failure. Martin Luther King died a failure, too.

And yet we commemorate both men when we have long forgotten their tormentors, those men of power oh so assured that their verdict on history would be the final, lasting, incontrovertible one. Something in the life and legacy of both prophetic figures demands remembrance, re-telling, re-creation so that these lives and these legacies have never died but live on, gaining through their remembrance a strength that they never had when their protagonists were alive.

As with Jesus, however, we remember, re-tell, re-create the life and legacy of Martin Luther King with disgraceful superficiality, a scornful superficiality that betrays the central ideals of the one we claim to be remembering. In the case of Jesus, we erect huge glittering edifices, obscene monuments to worldly power and wealth, in which to ponder his words about putting the poor first, selling what we have to give to the poor, and recognizing that the first will be last when God reigns.

In the case of Martin Luther King, we hold sonorous memorial services in which speakers drone on and on about a legacy they themselves conspicuously dishonor through their lives. The shoddiest, the most half-assed Martin Luther King memorials I have ever sat through have inevitably been on HBCU campuses, on campuses of African-American institutions of higher learning sponsored by churches.

They have been memorials at which preachers presided who, in King’s lifetime, would have been among those calling for his crucifixion, for his silencing, to have him strung up on a rail and ridden out of town crowned with tar and feathers. Haughty, empty, power-hungry ministers of the gospel intent on having their names and titles displayed with just-so punctilio in pretty King memorial programs. Endless ceremonies in which one such minister after another demands center stage, because all are so jealous of the power of each other and so intent on reading the words of the other as a slight, that the program goes on for hours.

Memorials in which the words of King, his prophetic vision, are completely lost. In which we pat ourselves on the back and assure ourselves that we are keeping the dream alive, that we are honoring King and his legacy, that his aspirations are being fulfilled in our world today—in our very lives.

As we pitch our dollars into the tax coffers that pay for instruments of torture to do to some young man across the globe what the Romans did to our Jesus. As we finance wars that slaughter innocent children in cities conveniently removed from our sight. As we freely make use of the valuable labor of demeaned others—immigrants, gays and lesbians—and just as freely kick those demeaned others to the curb when it is convenient for us to pretend that they do not exist.

And do not have feelings. Do not cry the tears we might cry if treated inhumanely. Do not feel the pain we ourselves, with our finer sensibilities born from our higher noblesse, feel when slighted and used.

I am thinking today in particular about the contrast between Martin Luther King and our new president Barack Obama. As Pat Marrin reminds us in a powerful reflection on how Dr. King’s prophetic legacy still waits fulfillment, “In assessing King’s influence today, it is important to recall that during his life he never held political office or exercised power beyond moral persuasion. King was first and foremost a preacher” (

Martin Luther King was not a political leader. He held no office. He had no bully pulpit in the halls of power, from which he could easily command the translation of his prophetic vision into reality. He had only a voice. And his considerable moral persuasion, which he exercised as he spoke in that rich, sonorous voice full of poetry and faith.

What Martin Luther King was, what he stood for, stands in sharp contrast to politicians and what they most always stand for. King and Obama represent two poles in the world of politics and power: one eschewed power and politicking for prophecy; the other pursues power by eschewing prophecy and employing political tools.

Whereas Mr. Obama can be judged to have succeeded—he is now president of the nation preeminent in power (in political and economic power, that is, if not in spiritual and moral power)—Dr. King failed:

By any earthly measure, King died a failure, the civil rights movement staggered by internal conflicts and sidelined by the collapse of democratic discourse in a season of riots and assassinations.

Just as Jesus failed . . . .

And so the question arises—it stands before some of us with stark clarity now as the new president assumes office: will Mr. Obama walk in the footsteps of Martin Luther King as he wields power? Or will his decisions and policies betray the legacy of King?

What seems less assured is whether King’s goal of full racial and economic equality and his radical commitment to nonviolence will also find substance in the legislative programs and foreign policies of the Obama administration. As King biographer Taylor Branch reminded an audience at the National Cathedral in Washington on the 40th anniversary of King’s last sermon there before his death in Memphis, “We have distorted our whole political culture in order to avoid King.” Branch shares the view of many that by glorifying King the orator, known by many only for his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, we have muffled King the prophet, who identified racism, militarism and poverty as the underlying and ongoing institutionalized conspiracy against freedom and equality in America.

On this blog, I have made no secret of the fact that I strongly supported Mr. Obama in his presidential campaign. I continue to support the new president.

I have also made no secret that I intend to be a loyal critic of an administration that, in my view, has much promise, but is already giving strong signs to progressive supporters (including progressive people of faith) that, in situations in which expediency and power mongering promise short-term benefits, it may well do what is expedient rather than what is right.

We desperately need, at this point in our troubled history, in the history of our troubled participatory democracy, more King and more prophecy. We need less politicking. We need solidarity and respect for human rights, not liberal management of conflicting interest groups. We need to learn to do what is right, for a change—not what is easy, what provides short-term benefits. We need to learn to value not what is glitzy but what is substantial.

As Pat Marrin notes, Martin Luther King’s legacy remains alive because the man who crafted the legacy lived the message he preached. King's legacy goes beyond empty rhetoric and false promises because he embodied his message:

King gave substance to his words by embodying the cause of justice he preached. His death empowered his memory and authenticated his message in blood. As an American icon, he can still be co-opted, but not ignored.

I hope that the same will prove true of our new president. I am not yet convinced. I will wait and see. My hope is muted, the hope of an old man who has seen too much. And whose own life has been constantly fraught with reminder of his unimportance, as a gay human being.

As a gay American, but also as a person of faith, I am tired of empty promises and smokescreen rhetoric. I am tired of being told that I am welcome at the party, and then, when I am invited to peer through the door, seeing token representatives of my community stand on the stage to speak, only to have the microphones and television cameras turned off.

I am tired of being told I count as a human being, of being assured that my talents are needed . . . and of waiting to hear the words fulfilled, to see the promises enshrined in action. This kind of shameful empty politicking to appease one's conscience, when one knows full well that he has no intent of making his words count or of fulfilling his promises, has no place in the beloved community for which Dr. King gave his life. It does not build, it betrays, beloved community.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it, this Martin Luther King day.