Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Rearview Mirror

The trap of choosing the picture we like over the picture we need

MLK Jr. (photo: Register Files / Public Domain)

It’s no secret that history looks very different in the rearview mirror than it did through the windshield. For that matter, the angle of your mirror matters too.

  • If we had been among the Jewish crowds cheering Jesus at the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, who would we have called for on Good Friday, Jesus or Barabbas?
  • If we had lived in pre-Civil War America, would we have accepted slavery or opposed it? Also, if (as we would hope) we had opposed it, what would we have been willing to do about it? Would we have been willing to invest our time and energy fighting slavery? Would we have considered supporting the Underground Railroad?
  • If we lived in Third Reich era Germany, would we have supported Hitler or opposed him — and if (as we would hope) we had opposed him, what would we have done about it? Would we have considered taking part in covert anti-Nazi activities, like Sophie Scholl and the White Rose?
  • If we lived in occupied Poland or the Netherlands, would we have risked hiding Jews, like Corrie ten Boom’s family, or turned them over, like so many did?
  • If we lived (for those of us young enough to consider this question in the subjunctive mood) during or before the Civil Rights era, would we have accepted Jim Crow segregation or opposed it (and if we opposed it, what would we have done about it)? Would we have supported civil disobedience or upheld law and order?

It’s easy to look back and say “I would have called for Jesus; I would have opposed Hitler; I would have supported Martin Luther King, Jr.” What we really mean, of course, is that we hope we would. But what would we really have done? Who can say?

It’s just as easy to subtly remake celebrated historical figures, from Jesus to King, in our image — to domesticate them in our imaginations in ways that flatter rather than challenge us.  

Reading the Bible through the lens of our own views, tastes and pieties, we tend to see a Jesus whose sensibilities strikingly converge with our own. Of course we would be bad Catholics if our sensibilities weren’t shaped by Jesus’ teachings! Yet somehow Jesus may look somewhat different to an American Catholic than to a French Catholic or an African Catholic, or even a Catholic from Boston than to a Catholic from Baton Rouge.

Some imagine Jesus as fundamentally gentle, mild and compassionate; others imagine him as fundamentally strong, confrontational and even violent. It would be one thing if constitutionally gentle souls saw him as confrontational while constitutionally bellicose souls saw him as mild; then perhaps each would see clearly how Jesus’ example complements and corrects their natural tendencies. Unfortunately, of course, the opposite is more often true. Whatever our natural tendency is colors how we see Jesus. We choose the picture we like over the picture we need.

Likewise, mutatis mutandis, with Martin Luther King, Jr. An article in today’s New York Times points out:

 It is easy to forget that, until fairly recently, many white Americans loathed Dr. King. They perceived him as a rabble rouser and an agitator; some rejoiced in his assassination in April 1968. How they got from loathing to loving is less a story about growing tolerance and diminishing racism, and more about the ways that Dr. King’s legacy has been scrubbed and blunted…When he was killed a week later, Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, told an audience that Dr. King was “an outside agitator, bent on stirring people up.” Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, described Dr. King’s killing as a “great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.”But Dr. King’s legacy — the meaning of “Martin Luther King” in the popular mind — began to change as soon as the man himself left us. As groups like the Black Panthers and the Weathermen called for armed resistance, Dr. King’s peaceful methods looked more appealing. Many white Americans focused on one line of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech — that he longed for the day when his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” — and molded him into a gentle champion of colorblindness.

It’s easy for white Americans to focus on that sentiment (“judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”) and forget, for instance, King’s scathing words of rebuke from his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”:

 I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

(If you haven’t read the “Birmingham Jail” letter, or haven’t read it lately, read it now.)

Ava DuVernay’s excellent Selma (my no. 2 film of 2014) is a valuable film in part because it resists this domesticated image of King. As I wrote in an article on “The staying power of Selma“:

 Selma also evokes a larger cultural milieu in which civil rights weren’t the only issue on the table, victory was by no means assured, and the best means of achieving victory were not at all clear.The tactic of nonviolence has been sanctified by hagiography, a sort of secular parallel to the unresisting suffering of Jesus and the saints. Selma presents it as a deliberate provocation, a bid to provoke a crisis forcing the nation to face up to its problems — a tactic that failed in places like Albany, where authorities could not be provoked into making mistakes, but worked like gangbusters in places like Birmingham and Selma.King himself, too, has been sanctified by hagiography. Selma takes the opposite approach from Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which deliberately embraced the 16th president’s iconic status, even introducing him seated on a dais conversing with a pair of black soldiers (one of whom is played by Oyelowo!), looking like he’s posing for his image in the Lincoln Memorial.

I think an important part of honesty and intellectual growth lies in developing the critical habit of looking for those pieces in the puzzle that don’t fit our preconceived notions, of cross-examining our habitual assumptions.

Here is a question I have often thought about. When the grandchildren of this generation — and I’m thinking here of the faithful Catholics of that generation — look back in the rearview mirror of history, what will our day look like to them?

What questions do we face of which they will ask themselves: “If I had lived back then, would I have believed X or Y? And, if (as I would hope) X, what would I have been willing to do about it?”