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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

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Historical Integrity

January 28, 2010

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an influential African American pastor, theologian, public intellectual, community organizer, and advocate of peace known the world over. To many he is, arguably, the greatest leader that America has ever produced. King, however, ultimately saw himself as a servant of God, and as such a servant to humankind; a preacher of the Gospel who refused to abdicate his responsibility to speak the truth in love. For him, Christian belief and practice were forever married with no opt-out clause or prenuptial agreement. In light of the holiday that bears his name that we recently celebrated, and no doubt will continue to do as we enter Black History Month, I have been reflecting on King's life lately. In doing so there is one major observation that has stuck in my mind. It deals with historical integrity.

The sensationalized rhetoric that we hear most often during this holiday portrays King as a beloved champion of civil rights who was loathed exclusively by whites, at least those who were ardent segregationalists, and overwhelmingly loved by blacks in the struggle for equality. However, no matter the polarized sentimentality portrayed in a number of documentaries and modern testimonies, this simply isn't accurate. Not to mention both the demonization and support by whites, there were many blacks inside and outside of Christian belief who, to put it in contemporary language, saw King as soft. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on October 14th, 1964, he gave away the $54,123 prize money. In the eyes of many blacks, with his so-called "white man's education," colorful vocabulary and masterful use of proper English, not to mention his Ghandi-inspired non-violent protest techniques, he was a sell-out. Some viewed him as a re-embodiment of Booker T. Washington, a pawn of the dominant culture who kowtowed to the racist regime, and in King's case someone whose efforts for equality would eventually prove futile. He was vilified in certain circles, even by blacks, as an Uncle Tom black preacher whose appeal to the moral conscience of humankind, through love for one's enemies and civil disobedience, was going to get himself killed. And, to top it all off, while no one would deny that he was an eloquent preacher and public orator, King didn't whoop (pronounced "hoop") in his preaching. Pointing to Henry H. Mitchell's book Black Preaching: The Recovery of a Powerful Art Abingdon, 1990), whooping might be loosely described as a cultural and spiritual invocation of tone and pitch, a process by which the preacher weaves singing and melodic speech in and out of their delivery.

King was denigrated in black circles, arguably, more than he was celebrated. Freedom fighters of the civil rights era are oftentimes quick to assert that he was embraced much more in death than he was in life. Some took issue with his theology while others opposed his methodology, particularly regarding youth involvement in mass meetings and civil disobedience. As we all know, blacks are not monolithic, therefore the community's opinion of King varied greatly from city to city. There were blacks who embraced a more gradual integration, blacks who favored segregation, and blacks who were in favor of a more pro-black or nationalist approach to the question of equality. History tells us that this tension is precisely what led to a split in 1961 within the National Baptist Convention, and the formation of the Progressive National Baptist Convention; hence, as the name suggests, a black Christian organization that intended to be much more progressive in its demands for civil rights than its predecessor.

It is Jesus who said, "Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor." Therefore, while Hosea is correct that we are destroyed from lack of knowledge, we must concede that sometimes we struggle terribly because we refuse to accept the provisions for knowledge that God often provides through our faithful leaders, whether they be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, or teachers.

American Christians are in dire need of reeducation about their history. In a 1948 article published in the Maroon Tiger, Morehouse College's campus newspaper when he was a student, King characterized education this way: "The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically...Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education." It is imperative that we acquire a sensitivity to and passion for our history in order that we learn from the mistakes of the past and not repeat them. Nevertheless, integrity is key.

As the younger generations might say, let's keep it real. King was not loved by everyone while he nobly fought against injustice. He was persecuted fervently, and countless bystanders and civil rights leaders alike posthumously and conveniently jumped on the bandwagon of King's beloved community once the proverbial smoke cleared. Furthermore, whether we like it or not, King was no saint. Rather he was merely a sinner saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. That is the Gospel, and the God of that Good News indeed keeps it real. Shouldn't we of faith be inclined to do likewise?

King was an extraordinary leader, but he was a human being still, one who surely had character flaws of varying degrees like the rest of us. In 1991 Boston University, King's alma mater, confirmed that he plagiarized significant portions of his doctoral dissertation. Then, there are the reports of his appetite for extramarital rendezvous, many which will undoubtedly be explored further in 2027 when the FBI's "COINTELPRO" (Counter Intelligence Program) surveillance records on King will become available to the public. King ought to be embraced, but not coveted, celebrated, but not worshiped, appreciated, but not bestowed eternal adoration. History tells us that much.

Most of us are probably familiar with the old admonition to tell the truth and shame the devil. Well, if we don't know the truth of how our faith has taken shape in and been sustained throughout history, then we will remain in bondage. We know from John 8:32, for example, that Jesus values truth. The time for us to deal responsibly and comprehensively with the good, the bad, and the ugly of our history as Christians is long overdue. If we fail to learn our history and tell the truth about it, if we lack integrity, then we dishonor King's legacy and that of all who fought on the side of righteousness. Even more to the point though, we dishonor God.

And, doing that never works out well. Just ask history.


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