Safely dead?

Today – today! – is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech symbolizes the sentiment and power of that historic event.  Hopefully you’ve had opportunity to tune in to any of the number of commemorations going on today and this past week. 

I have to admit I’ve had some hesitations leading up to today.  My fear has been that this would turn into a national exercise in hero worship, narrowing the significance of King’s prophetic message to the words of a larger-than-life individual who is now safely dead.  But in the few essays and radio programs I’ve caught this week focused on the anniversary, I’ve been pleasantly encouraged.  Overall I am hearing a collective sense of a struggle that continues, of this being not about a single person, but about a legacy that we are all responsible for continuing.  The recent ruling in the Trayvon Martin case and the Supreme Court’s diminishment of the Voting Rights Act, all in the last couple months, no doubt add to the sense of the unfulfilled dream.  Not to mention poverty wages many workers face, mass incarceration, and increased militarization of our country.

But hero worship remains the greatest temptation of the day – to create in our collective consciousness an image that is both false and debilitating.  To locate our power for love, justice, and healing outside of ourselves in a distant individual who himself depended on an entire community to be who he was.  It has its parallels in the temptation Christians have always faced in our relationship to Jesus – to worship him without following him. 

Maybe this is a poem that is being circulated today in other venues, but if you have not seen it, it’s worth pondering.  It was written by black poet and musician Carl Wendell Hines after the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X but is also applicable to King’s legacy. 

“Now That He Is Safely Dead”

Now that he is safely dead let us praise him, build monuments to his glory, sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make such convenient heroes.
They cannot rise to challenge the images we would fashion from their lives.
And besides,
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.

Enjoy the stories, memories, challenges, and inspiration of this day and live in the resurrection of the Christ who continues to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.