Monday, April 4, 2011 marked the 43rd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tragic death. Cut down in his prime by an assassin’s bullet, Dr. King’s legacy is one of perseverance, bravery, and sacrifice. He was a man bold to stand against a culture steeped in racism and institutionalized prejudice. He was a man whose dream inspired generations and changed America forever. But, he was also a man who struggled with loneliness and depression, kept mistresses, and overindulged in food and drink.
With several King biopics in the works, the life of this American hero is being examined anew. Does Hollywood have the chutzpa to tell King’s story with honesty and candor, or will it succumb to portraying the sentimental notion of King the Saint? Author Hampton Sides addressed the tendency to gloss over the humanity of great public figures in favor of a sanitized, sanctified version of them in an interesting opinion piece for the Washington Post. He is hopeful that Hollywood will choose the former course this time around:
Hopefully these and other portrayals will not seek to sanitize Martin Luther King. We have no use for Hallmark heroes – airbrushed, Photoshopped, simon-pure. We need to see King in all his pathos, imperfection and messy ambiguity. . . . As we mark the anniversary of his death – in Memphis a full-day commemoration will feature former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young – we need to stay mindful of King’s flesh-and-blood humanity. By draping him in a halo glow, we do him little honor. By fashioning him into a fleshless icon, we place his achievements at a sterile remove. By calling our heroes superhuman we also let ourselves off the hook: Why do the hard work of bettering the world if that’s something only saints do? What made King’s eloquence so ferocious and his courage so stirring was that, like the Memphis garbage workers he came to represent, he was a man.
Sides makes an excellent point. By creating idealized visions of great men like King, we dehumanize them. This process not only shortchanges the profundity of their accomplishments, it provides the rest of us with a convenient “hero exemption,” a justification for a self-centered disconnection from the outside world and an unwillingness to stand on principle in the face of adversity. “Unless I am a perfect, sinless person,” so the thinking goes, “then I have no business lecturing anyone else about their own shortcomings. I have no business defending principles that I’m unable to adhere to perfectly in my own life, so it’s better if I just live and let live.”
Sadly, there are those who specialize in undercutting the accomplishments of those in the public eye by exposing their feet of clay. We live in a culture that relishes the exposé, the “True Hollywood story,” and the unauthorized biography. We love to set up heroes only to tear them back down when they reveal a shred of fallibility. This pathology holds especially true in the world of politics. Many will recall Clinton operative Vince Foster, who committed suicide, lamenting Washington’s “politics of personal destruction.”
While it may seem admirable to hold our public officials to impeccable standards of personal conduct, this unrealistic paradigm often causes more harm than good. Politicos vying for popular support frequently resort to elaborate obfuscation and often outright lies in order to stay in the public’s good graces. Inevitably, however, the ruse is shattered, and the public trust is betrayed. Perhaps this is why many good men and women are hesitant to pursue lives of public service. It’s easier to leave the game to the seasoned professionals who long ago mastered the art of the political bob-and-weave and for whom lying comes as easily as breathing.
We should remember, however, that history is replete with examples of very flawed men who accomplished very great deeds and contributed much good to society. Thomas Jefferson was a slave-holder who never freed his mistress or the children she bore by him, yet he penned the words that would form the basis of appeal for the eventual eradication of slavery and security of civil rights for every American. Richard Nixon, whose legacy will be forever marred by Watergate, achieved notable foreign policy successes including the establishment of diplomatic relations with China and detente with the Soviets. As a Christian, I know the Bible is replete with examples of flawed humans that God has used for great good in this world. David was a murderer and adulterer, yet was lionized as the greatest King of Israel. The Apostle Paul described himself as the Chief of Sinners, yet he spread the Gospel more widely than any of his predecessors.
Does character matter? Of course it does! Being a flawed human, however, is no reason to stay on the sidelines in life. We shouldn’t ignore the reality of the human condition. Despite what popular culture and self-help manifestos might tell us, we are all sinners, and all fall short of God’s glory. But we should not let our shortcomings prevent us from trying to do good in this world. Thankfully, God has made provision for our sins through the gift of his Son, and we – sinners that we are – have been commissioned as his hands and feet on this earth to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our Maker. Dr. King and many others have answered the call. Shouldn’t we?
Ken Connor is an attorney and co-author of Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty. He is also Chairman of the Center for a Just Society.
Publication date: April 18, 2011