The ongoing crisis in the church surrounding the sexual abuse scandal and the loss of confidence in authority has been rightly unsettling for many Catholics. As we reflect on this reality of years-long evil and complicity, we ought not to let it distract us from other injustices in which many Catholics – clerical and lay alike – have sadly been complicit. In the United States, this manifestly includes the nation’s “original sin” of racism rooted in centuries of racially based chattel slavery. In so reflecting, we turn our attention to Martin Luther King, Jr., whom the national calendar in the U.S. commemorates on January 21. King’s example has much to offer us both on this question of racial injustice and on the classic Catholic question of sainthood and its implications.
Growing up as an “old millennial” in the 1980s and 1990s, I was part of the first generation of American schoolchildren for whom the Martin Luther King Day holiday in January, and concomitant lessons in school, were a “given” part of the calendar. Little did I know at the time of the complicated history of the holiday’s passage into law or the controversial nature of King’s life and work up until and even after his death. King’s secular “sainthood” – centered around the Montgomery bus boycott, the Birmingham protests of spring 1963 and the “I Have a Dream” speech – seemed safely a part of the American mythos on which I was raised.
Dorothy Day, herself likely on the path to sainthood in the church, famously commented, “Don’t call me a saint – I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” The thrust of Day’s comment was that it is all too easy for sainthood – whether official church canonization or other kinds of sainthood such as that surrounding King (who is also commemorated on the calendars of some church bodies) – to reduce people to facets of their lives that are most comfortable for those who are themselves comfortable or powerful. In so reducing complex figures to flatter, easier versions, we refuse the challenge that made the person a saint in the first place.
King’s veneration is well deserved and yet, as Day’s comment about sainthood indicates, has in certain respects oversimplified King’s legacy, particularly among white Americans. Michael Eric Dyson, Jeanne Theoharis and other thinkers have explored the ways in which the legacy of the Civil Rights movement has been utilized to obscure present-day injustices and the movements that combat them. This is particularly and ironically the case for the Black Lives Matter movement and the way it has been vilified by many whites who view its simple slogan, and demands for acknowledgement of equal Black humanity by law enforcement and other societal institutions, as a threat.
King himself did not die a popular or sainted figure among white Americans. His 1967 announcement of opposition to the Vietnam War did not sit well with many whites, particularly middle-class northern whites (many of them Catholics). His later speeches also more explicitly named racism as the root of the problems the Civil Rights movement sought to remedy. This shift in emphasis came very much from his experiences fighting housing discrimination in the urban and particularly suburban north. This is apparent if one watches the raw footage contained in the 1970 documentary film King: A Filmed Record, particularly the 1966 march for integration in the Chicago suburbs. This campaign – which King described as one of the most difficult of his career – was met by a vociferous white (and again largely Catholic) backlash that might be shocking to some, but sadly should not be in light of some of the things we have witnessed in Charlottesville, Virginia, and elsewhere recently.
Worthwhile reading for this Martin Luther King Day would be King’s great sermon “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” delivered in Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1968 – mere days before his death. In that sermon, King attacks the evils of racism, poverty and war in bracing language that acknowledges the unpopularity of his stands. He also raises the problem of the unique injustice to Black Americans as the only group that has been subjected to slavery on American soil. This is a fact that we as a nation still struggle to reckon with, and is particularly trenchant for American Catholics, many of whom traditionally have been “white ethnics” who faced discrimination early on but later gained acceptance through assimilation to a whiteness that was unavailable to Black Americans. Just because one’s ancestors did not personally participate in slavery does not exempt one from its long-term benefits and consequences.
Saints are there to challenge us, to unsettle us from our usual ways of thinking and doing. If our image of a saint – whether a saint of the church, a “secular” saint or both – is not doing this, it usually is a judgment on us, not on them (which is not to say saints have to be “perfect” and free of error, as one has only to peruse the list of saints to realize). Martin Luther King and the causes for which he lived and died – racial equality, economic justice, peace – deserve better than simplistic hagiography. We have witnessed in the past few years the dangers that arise from a failure of vigilance and memory concerning hatreds that we naively assure ourselves were limited to the past or to “other” people (1930s Germans, bigoted Southerners). Let us honor King’s memory by remembering it more fully and dedicating ourselves to the causes he embraced – not just the ones we find convenient.
Renewing the church does not just meant cleaning up the internal messes of malfeasance by Catholic leaders, much needed as this is. It means finding a prophetic voice against injustice that has been too often silenced or selectively exercised, and which is now – at least in the case of the hierarchy – rendered void of moral authority. It means listening to the voices of black Catholics, too often neglected in histories as well as discussions of contemporary American Catholics. And it means acknowledging and repenting of the sins of commission and omission by white Catholics, including “white ethnic” Catholics, putting property values above justice in the era of “white flight” and those who are indifferent or complicit (whether directly or through willful ignorance of their own complicity) with racial hatred today. Turning for guidance to King and other saints – Catholic and not – would be a worthy starting point for this effort.
Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.