Monday, January 20, 2014

MLK, Jr. - Haloed Saint or Angel, Flying Too Close To The Ground

A Saint in the Roman Catholic tradition is a member of a rarified clan of mortals who, after death, and after extensive examination, have been determined to have lived in such a way as to give them a righteous standing that few of the rest of us can ever hope to achieve. In the tradition with which I have been associated, we called all the assembled worshipers saints. It is obvious that the two traditions are referring to something different when they designate a saint. 

The Koine Greek word from the New Testament Scriptures that is translated “saint” is hagios. Its literal meaning is “holy”. Thus saints are the holy ones. The Catholic tradition (if I understand it correctly – or completely) takes saint to mean those whose earthly behaviors are exceptionally righteous. Most Protestant traditions, following Luther’s dictum that salvation is by grace, through faith alone, conclude that all believers are made righteous in Christ by belief in him and thus belong to the hagios, saints made holy by imputation of the righteousness of Christ.

I’m thinking, on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, of the man that some would designate a saint because of the transforming effects his actions and words have had in our world. But sadly, in the media-saturated world in which we live, it is hard to be a saint in either the Catholic or Protestant sense. Enough has now been revealed, or has been alleged, to cast some shadows upon King’s moral and political stature. Without going into details, it is clear to those who have read serious studies of King’s life that he was initially a reluctant warrior, that his fidelity to his marriage was lacking, and that his inspiration drew upon sources many regard as suspect. So, while we celebrate the consequences of King’s life, many would recoil at the suggestion that he is one of the hagios, one of the saints. 

Thankfully our status as one of the hagios will ultimately be decided by One fully competent to know us. And if the apostle Paul is right our holiness (hagia) will be useless (like filthy rags) as a warrant allowing us to stand before Ultimate Holiness. We all are sinners, all have failed to achieve even the goals we have set for ourselves. Every success has been an imperfect one driving us always to amend, perfect, or supersede it. 

None of us is righteous – no, not one. Publicly, we may occasionally pat ourselves on the back, or allow others to do so, but even then we know our shortcomings. We are, in the words of Willy Nelson’ song, “Angels, flying too close to the ground.” Angels, because we have been made in our creator’s image, but broken by our association with this world (cosmos) which decidedly is not made in God’s image. Certainly, none of us is a haloed saint. 

So when we judge our saints, living or having passed into the mist of myth, we are best served by a realism that neither demonizes nor deifies them. The words Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke rightly inspire us. He was inspired to speak those words. The sacrifices King made for the sake of others demands our gratitude. The courage King showed in the face of constant threats to his life stands as an example to all who would follow him into the hazardous battles for justice. 

When duty called, King stood tall. But duty is not always calling, and it is in those lulls in the action that angels fly too close to the ground. It is our natural response, when coming upon a fallen angel, to let their fallen state blind us to the times when they soared into battle and accomplished feats that will outlive them and the evils against which they fought. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. is not, in my mind, a haloed saint. He is an angel (Greek = angelos – messenger) who, like all the rest of us, sometimes flew too close to the ground. But the message he bore was true and the causes he espoused were righteous and the legacy his actions have created make the world a better place to live. That is not insignificant. Insufficient? Yes, King himself would say so. But it is enough that we should pause today and thank God for the flawed life of Martin Luther King Jr. And we should pray that our flawed lives will likewise leave a legacy of good for those who follow.

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