Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. stands alongside the
Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Archbishop Oscar
Romero of El Salvador and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoffer
of Germany as the Martyrs of the 20th century over the
West Door of Westminster Abbey in London.
And yet this man whom the churches honor—as America honors—on the third Monday of January; this man whose statue graces the façade of Westminster Abbey in London, this man who is commemorated in the calendars of both the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, this man whom Catholic Cardinals and Jewish Rabbis pay homage to every January was a man of multiple extramarital affairs. A great man but no saint. Of course we know his sin because another man—a man for whom there is no holiday, a man who lies in a grave overgrown with weeds in the shadow of the national Capitol, a man whose name had become a national punchline before fading into an ever darkening obscurity, a man whose alleged hypocrisy tried to hide that he was a deeply closeted gay transvestite—thought he could stop King’s social revolution by exposing his adulteries to the American public. He dragged King through the mud but the mud hasn’t stuck—to Doctor King.
There is a lesson here. Actually there are several lessons. One is that original sin runs deep in each of us. Anne Marie Bigod de Cornuel, onetime mistress of Louis XIV, allegedly said: “there are none who are heroes to their valets nor to the Fathers of the Church among their contemporaries.” Yes, valets know the soiled linen of their employers and the Fathers of the Church knew the soiled souls not only of their contemporaries, but indeed of humankind.
Another lesson, dependent somewhat on the first, is that even as saints are not necessarily great men (or women) so too great men (or women) are not necessarily saints. One of my favorite books is Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. It is a reminder that virtue and greatness are not the same thing. (That isn’t an endorsement for Newt, by the way. Of course, I see neither attribute there. Nor is it an endorsement for Rick Santorum to whom I will grant a measure of character but in whom I don’t see any potential for greatness. It is sad the neither Catholic candidate can offer us both character and statesman like gravitas. One would hope that our Catholic stock had some sap of confessors and martyrs left running in it and not only the more pallid juice of virgins.) There are great men and there are men who do great things. Or actually, there are great persons and persons who do great things as men have a monopoly on neither character nor deeds.
We Americans tend to be sloppy and imprecise in making out distinctions. Men of great deeds have sat in the White House—Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, Franklin Roosevelt. And there were great men who sat in the White House—Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter to name two more recent ones. There are men whom if one could get beneath the myths to the historical realities may have been men of great deeds and great character, namely George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but it is hard to objectively assess the former for his character and the latter for his deeds as their presidencies (and for Washington, indeed his whole career) are shrouded in the myths that define our nation. We have seen the same to be true in the Church. Men of great deeds such as Gregory VII, Innocent III, Julius II, Paul III have led the Church through times of crisis and led the Church well. Men of great soul have sat in Peter’s chair: Celestine V, Pius VII, Pius X, Paul VI. I suspect Benedict XVI might fall in this category when his papacy is finally able to be evaluated.
And so back to Doctor King. A man of great deeds but with a certain weakness of character. He was not totally without character: he had bravery, he had passion for justice, and he had perseverance. He was intelligent and articulate. He wasn’t a saint but he was still God’s instrument as much as some of our greatest popes were. He was, like Graham Greene’s Whiskey Priest and like so many of us, a treasure in an earthen vessel (2nd Corinthians 4:7). And better, I suppose, to be such a treasure even if one’s character is but a clay pot to hold it than to be a golden bowl but to be empty and useless. Granted he was no saint, but a builder of the Kingdom of God nonetheless. There is a lot to think about here.