When Martyrs’ Legacies Are Whitewashed and Coopted

When Martyrs’ Legacies Are Whitewashed and Coopted April 3, 2018

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center, leads a group of civil rights workers and Selma black people in prayer on Feb. 1, 1965 in Selma, Alabama after they were arrested on charges of parading without a permit. More than 250 persons were arrested as they marched to the Dallas County courthouse as part of a voter registration drive. (AP Photo/BH)

Fifty years ago, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, he had a national disapproval rating of 66%. This was largely due to the shift of his political organizing to address the Vietnam War and economic injustice. He was assassinated while making preparations for a Poor People’s Campaign that was going to culminate in another march on Washington. Though King’s assassination transformed public perception of him, conservative white lawmakers like North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms fought vociferously against the celebration of Martin Luther King. Jr. Day, claiming that King had been a communist sympathizer (which was the default blanket slur used by white conservatives against any political activist throughout the duration of the Cold War).

Now that the Cold War is over and open segregationism is no longer socially tenable, Jesse Helms’ ideological descendants love to quote King primarily as a means of attacking supposedly more radical contemporary social movements like Black Lives Matter. Similarly, white liberals disregard King’s actual words and political stances, turning his legacy into a sort of apolitical campaign for feel-good multicultural diversity, as if racism were actually about people judging others literally according to their skin color rather than the long, slowly dissipating multi-generational residue of centuries of ideologically justified and strategically calculated genocide, enslavement, and segregation.

I would wager that if King’s actual words in their full radical intensity were evaluated by a survey sample of white Americans today rather than the fake whitewashed legend that’s been created around him, the disapproval rate would be higher today than it was fifty years ago. As I think about the way that King’s legacy has been domesticated into apolitical, ahistorical multiculturalism, it brings to mind the way that another historical martyr’s legacy has been coopted and whitewashed, that being one Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of my religion.

It’s hard to determine at what point the self-proclaimed followers of Jesus became basically the same as the religious authorities who crucified him. Though it’s taboo to question the biblical canon, I do wonder about the passages exhorting slaves to obey their masters and women to obey their husbands as well as the notorious chapter in Romans that says that the law is only a terror to wrongdoers (while the Roman emperor Nero was using Christians as human torches to light up his banquets).

Those sections of the New Testament epistles would have been completely compatible with the views of Jesus’ religious persecutors. I’m not going to throw those passages out of my Bible, but I think part of our interpretive process has to involve noticing the tension between their authoritarian, patriarchal bent and the decidedly anti-authoritarian message of Jesus, whose sacrificial suffering was his authority. The foil between Jesus and his religious persecutors is the centerpiece of my biblical interpretive process. The question I always ask myself is am I acting more like Jesus or his persecutors.

It’s hard not to feel a sense of despair about the inevitability of martyrs being coopted by empire and made palatable to empire’s most powerful and privileged members. Today, throughout most of America, we have a Christianity that has been reduced morally to “family values,” a.k.a. the monogamous heterosexual respectability of middle class living. As long as you’re heterosexually married and you avoid porn and cheating on your spouse, then you’ve fulfilled the standard that “Christian holiness” has been reduced to. Anything you do beyond that to serve the poor or build just, loving community is purely optional bonus points to most American Christians today.

And this Christianity of middle class heterosexual respectability has been exported vigorously around the world through our missionary efforts over the past two centuries. This past weekend while I was on my mission trip in Mexico, at the annual Easter baptism ceremony for a local Methodist district, I heard the preacher exhort the crowd to flee “the world which says that it doesn’t matter whether a man is with a woman or a man.” That was the only example given of “worldly sin” in the entire sermon. Nothing about greed, nothing about gossip, nothing about alcoholism, nothing about political corruption, nothing about the cartel violence that’s destroying northern Mexico. The Zeta cartel actually consider themselves to be evangelical Christians who are simply enforcing their standard of moral purity when they decapitate their enemies. If Christian holiness is simply heterosexual middle-class respectability, then the Zetas aren’t wrong about themselves.

So I don’t know what to do on this fiftieth anniversary of King’s assassination other than to grieve the impossibility of truth ever remaining uncoopted by empire. One thing I will say that I don’t think too many people would disagree with wherever they land theologically is that truth is always a minority report. Jesus said to enter by the narrow gate. I suppose that those who are walking through that narrow gate never feel like they’re winning and always second-guess themselves and wonder if God has actually chosen to favor the guy with the explosively growing megachurch across town. At least that’s the story I have to tell myself for now.

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