Of Myths and Dreams
The paradox of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Depending on the angle, the sculpture could look like a number of things, none of them good. The Embrace, unveiled last week in Boston Common, is partially based on a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., hugging his wife, Coretta. I say “partially,” because it is quite literally partial—as in, it is missing their heads. The remaining ambiguous tangle of arms leaves something to be desired, to put it politely. The King family themselves have put it less politely.
Symbolism abounds here, of course. Mary Harrington has a good Unherd essay analyzing the piece as the culmination of a postmodern, dehumanized aesthetic, where not even Martin Luther King, Jr., can escape decapitation and depersonalization. But the sculpture also carries an even more disturbing symbolic suggestion. As others have noted, wryly, the last thing one wants to do with a sculpture of MLK, Jr. and his wife is invite viewers to free-associate it with something sexual. Unfortunately, most angles of The Embrace make such free-association unavoidable. But perhaps, in a dark sense, this is actually a true symbol—more true than most people are able or willing to bear.
Historian Tom Holland has suggested that “Hitler killed the devil,” in the sense that once we had Hitler, Satan was no longer required as the archetypal spirit of evil in the Western mind. In a similar way, one could say that once we had Martin Luther King, Jr., we no longer required Jesus. We had our figure who came preaching a gospel of peace, challenged ruling authorities, inspired love and hatred in equal measure, and was finally murdered by his political enemies. A figure whose speeches could be recorded, whose face could be captured and preserved in every history book to come. What need did we have now for a faceless, distant Nazarene?
Some might object that this discounts MLK, Jr.’s own Christianity. But that would depend on what we mean by “Christianity.” As a young student at Crozer Theological Seminary, King was steeped in the theological revisionism of his day, writing papers that rejected the most basic tenets of Christian doctrine and demoted Jesus to the status of a sub-divine social revolutionary. One could dismiss these papers as young work, not to be counted in a serious assessment of King’s mature theological paradigm. They sometimes weren’t even proofread, and they regurgitated his textbooks so rigidly that one wonders how much they reflected his own original thought. (This is consistent with later revelations that he plagiarized large sections of his dissertation. A minor foible, perhaps, in the grand scheme, but I will confess I’ve never been able to bring myself to call the man “Dr. King.”) For my part, I think they’re fair game, and they clearly show the waters in which the future minister was swimming.
Was MLK, Jr., a Christian martyr, then? Or was he perhaps, in a sense, the first post-Christian martyr?
Once again, it depends on what you mean by “Christian.” Was Thomas Jefferson Christian? He did after all, like King, greatly admire the teachings of Christ. And, like King, he produced manifestos that were inseparable from the Christian ethos, world-shaking declarations of divinely endowed human dignity. Both men were well aware of the branch on which their declarations rested. Both men knew that, in some sense, they could not be anything but “Christian.” At the same time, both men had no qualms about chopping up the Christian Bible, literally and figuratively.
These two American icons resemble each other in another sense of course, namely their casual attitude towards traditionally Christian restraints on men’s sexuality. Jefferson is believed to have seduced and impregnated his own slave girl (though some still dispute his paternity of her children). King not only had multiple consensual affairs but was also caught on tape coercing a woman into oral sex for the good of her soul, as well as egging on another friend in the act of rape.
These last revelations, unsealed by King’s own biographer, came as a particular shock when they first surfaced. The affairs were an undeniably awkward stain on his memory, but as long as they were consensual, they could be tactfully airbrushed away as a tragic “weakness,” a regrettable “flaw” in an otherwise sterling moral legacy. When still darker truths came to light, the question hung in the air: What now?
As it’s turned out, nothing, really. By contrast with Thomas Jefferson’s systematic cancellation, there has been no corresponding groundswell for King. Why not? The answer is clear. Instead of Satan, we have Hitler. Instead of Jesus, we have Martin Luther King. The myth must survive, or else we have nothing. We are in free-fall.
What, then, of the sacred texts? What of “I have a dream”? What of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”? What now do these words mean? Do they have meaning, still?
We could just as well ask, what of the Declaration of Independence? What of “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”?
To some, the meaning of a message is dependent on the integrity of the messenger. The hypocritical man’s words are so much sound and fury, signifying nothing. Nevertheless, words do have meaning. They express ideas on a page, ideas which may be true or may be false, but once loosed into the world, they are free. Free even of the mind that first conceived them.
For even as they forget, unholy men remember. And even as the sun sinks in the West, and black night falls, they still dream Christian dreams.