Martin Luther King Day: Man, Nation, and Myth

I missed posting yesterday because I was suffering from the flu. In fact, I’m not all that energetic today either, but I did want to post something about Martin Luther King day.

Many people seem not to have become comfortable with Martin Luther King day as a holiday. This was brought home to me as I talked business to somebody on the phone and mentioned that I wouldn’t be able to accomplish something yesterday because of the holiday. There was a long pause, and then, “Oh. Yes. It’s Martin Luther King day.”

Oh yes! It is! (Or it was.)

And that got me to thinking about the day itself and the man who inspired it. Dr. King was not all that popular a man during his life. He spent his time fighting against the cultural standards of his region in his time. There were even those who were happy to see him die. We like to think of those days as “bad old times” that won’t be coming back. But the basic problems of human nature, of fear of things that are different, and of resistance to change, no matter how much needed, are still a part of our lives and culture.

That’s where we need the myth. People look down on the word “myth” as though somehow a person is diminished as part of a myth, as though a myth is less than any other story, rather than greater. But the fact is that a person lives on and accomplishes more as a myth. Many people have written historically about Dr. King, and some have thought to tarnish his image. I don’t really know how much their historical data has impacted people individually, but I don’t think they’ve succeeded in tarnishing the myth. It is myth that allows him to still speak, even though he is dead.

Hebrews 11:4 says that Abel offered a better sacrifice than his brother Cain, and in that way, even though he is dead, he still speaks. That’s the myth in action. There’s a great deal more than just believing something involved in faith here. Dr. King managed to see the vision of what could be instead of what was, he visualized a path that others hadn’t seen, his faith in his vision, in his God, and even in his country was strong enough to allow him to take action. Through that faith he offered a better sacrifice.

I need to say one thing about faith in his country. Non-violent protest requires a faith that is beyond oneself. The military leader, prepared with weaponry, personnel, and a plan, needs faith in his own abilities and that of his troops to take action. The non-violent protester believes that somewhere inside his opponents and in those who are apathetically standing by there is a whisper of conscience, enough goodness or divine spark, enough something to make them step up and do the right thing, even if they must be pressured to do it.

And that myth–that story that lives on, that provides a challenge and a form to our actions–lives on, and keeps calling us to change the inequities and injustices that we see before us today. The question is whether we will live up to the myth, perhaps even creating new and greater myths to drive us. Will we learn to be a nation that deserves to enshrine a day to deal not just with inequalities, but to celebrate and carry forward the fight for justice? Will Martin Luther King day become a true part of the American mythos, for all of us?

Or will it be “Oh. Yes! Martin Luther King day,” as we regret the lack of hours for business.

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One Comment

  1. I think that in a world full of sadness we need heroes. The mythos of MLK may not even be close to the man he actually was, but like most martyrs, only the best will be remembered. Truthfully, he was fighting a good fight, and I hope that it will inspire all of us.

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