I recently watched the PBS program with Tavis Smiley examining the sermon given by Martin Luther King, Jr., exactly a year before his assassination, in which he denounced the war in Vietnam. Unlike King’s "I have a dream" and "Mountaintop" speeches, this April 4, 1967 sermon, delivered in New York City’s Riverside Church, isn’t talked about much these days. Although it was arguably more powerful, this speech, demanding that justice requires peace, was dangerous.
The speech made King a villain in the white community, including President Johnson, who had been a friend and strong ally. Even the black community was upset with him. Everyone said he should have stuck with civil rights and not get involved with foreign affairs. One King associate interviewed on the program opined that King was killed because of the sermon.
Yet, King is now remembered quite fondly and lauded, almost as a saint and also a martyr. There are schools and streets named for him, and his birthday is a national holiday. How did M.L.K go from being a pariah to being a hero?
We have forgotten - conveniently - that King was a man, a man who was passionate and full of feelings, including anger. We ignore the fact that his soothing message of non-violence was something that he strove for and didn’t preclude strong opinions and emotions. We have sanitized him. As Harvard University black studies professor Cornell West explained to Smiley on the program, there has been a "Santa Clausification" of King. "He now comes with a bag of treats for the kiddies."
Not unlike, it has occurred to me, what has happened with Jesus.
It’s not that Jesus now hands out toys. In fact, to the contrary, he is, to a not insignificant number of people, a stern master who with-holds love and acceptance from those who don’t conform to a certain code of people. The condemnation of gay people in his name is an example of this.
Nevertheless, this wasn’t who Jesus was at all. Jesus was all about love and about reaching out to the other and the enemy. He also wasn’t some pious, prissy follower of rules. No, Jesus was a radical, a hippie (as the patches sewn onto my bibs say), who broke rules, who knocked over the tables of the money-changers in the temple. Furthermore, in being so, he was a man who got furious, had temper tantrums, and who questioned God and wept bitterly.
And he laughed. Taped onto the wall above my desk is a drawing of Jesus laughing, sent to me from a friend who said it was from Playboy magazine. My friend said that when the drawing appeared, Playboy got more hate mail than for any other item it had published.
So I guess Jesus can’t laugh (and be human and sexual). Funny what people want Jesus - and M.L.K - to be.