The Dangers of Domestication
Part 1: From Hated to Hallowed
Last month, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, my daughter was given a worksheet at school. It looked a lot like this one to the right, but with different content.
The actual content of the worksheet was "Ways I can make the world a better place, just like Martin Luther King, Jr. did." The ways to do so included, but were not limited to:
- Leaving a "thank you" note for your mailman [sic]
- Picking up litter in your neighborhood
- Playing with a classmate that you've never played with before
I'm sure Dr. King would—at some level—appreciate being remembered in this way.
I'm also pretty sure he'd be royally pissed off.
I'm no expert on Dr. King or his positions, but I know they were a lot more nuanced and sophisticated than "be nice to people." He is remembered mostly for his ideas on peaceful protest, or civil disobedience, saying, "Any man who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail in order to arouse the conscience of the community on the injustice of the law is at that moment expressing the very highest respect for law."
The kind of law it sounds like he's talking about in that quote is the kind of law that most of us can easily forgive breaking. A law that most of us could agree shouldn't have existed in the first place, if only in hindsight. Not sitting in the back of the bus as you've been told. Organizing a sit-in.
But that's not the whole picture of Dr. King's views, which continued to evolve over his lifetime. Look at this quote from not long before his death:
Why is this quote not as familiar as others of his? I've heard the "I Have a Dream" speech a thousand times (and I'll never tire of it), but I'd never heard this quote in full until I went looking for it, having heard something about King becoming more radical toward the end of his life. Many of the people who could follow the thread of the previous quote, those who could condone the civil disobedience of breaking the law in riding in the front of the bus or refusing to leave a public place in order to demonstrate their objections, might have trouble going so far as to understand looting in this way.
I find it interesting, though, that the—surely numerous—people who would not be willing to go that far have not, at least not successfully, spoken out against Dr. King. It's not hard to imagine some movement trying to invalidate Dr. King's contributions, pointing to these later, more radical ideas as evidence that he wasn't the peacemaker he was made out to be. I, for one, am guilty of forgetting that it wasn't until well after his death that Dr. King was as commonly honored in this country as he is now. During his lifetime, he was not as beloved by America—as a whole, anyway—as he is now.
How did this happen? How did public opinion of Dr. King make its way from "public enemy" to "hero, coach, leader, peacemaker?"
Part 2: From Savior to Super-friend
I'm just going to put these things right next to each other.
Is the same thing happening here?
I grew up (at least post teen-years) in the church, going to Christian private schools from junior high all the way through college. I majored in religious studies. So my understanding of the doctrines of the American church, from Baptists to Southern Baptists to Presbyterians to Methodists to Pentecostals and beyond, was at least a little better than average.
And, yet, I don't recall anyone ever really dwelling on the idea that Jesus was executed by the state as a political criminal. I was told he was "hung between two thieves," only to learn from Rob Bell, quite recently, that the word translated as "thief" would more accurately be translated as "insurgent."
Jesus, too, has been transformed in our collective memory as a teddy-bear. We picture him strolling the Israeli countryside in his Birkenstocks, birds circling him like a Disney princess.
In both cases—Jesus and Dr. King—you can shatter the illusion with an obvious question: "Why would such a man have been killed?"
Part 3: From Hunter to Hugger
Charles Darwin noticed something odd amongst all his observations of evolving species: when we domesticated animals, they got cuter.
There are theories as to why this happens, but whether it happens is not disputed. If you start providing an animal with ready access to food and shelter, over generations of reproduction, with no other meddling in its day-to-day life, it will get cuter—floppier ears, bigger eyes, patches of white fur, and other hallmark features of "cuteness."
In 1959 (citation below the forthcoming quote), Dmitry Belyaev put this theory to the test and attempted to speed the process by intentionally breeding wild foxes, selecting for the "most social" among them. By choosing the foxes that displayed the least fear when he was nearby, the foxes least likely to bite him, within 10 generations these creatures grew up—with ready access to food and water, practically no predators to worry about, and regular exposure to him—and with each generation came closer and closer to resembling a character from Lady and The Tramp. Within this dude's lifetime.
And we're starting to think this might have happened to us, too...
Part 4: From Insurgent to Insurance Agent
There's a drive within us, one that can be explained via evolutionary science, human psychology, conspiracy theory, or however you like, to de-claw, to pacify, to domesticate not only our species, but the outliers among them—the great thinkers, the heroes, the best and the worst of us.
We do a disservice to these heroes, and to ourselves, when we sand off the thorns and barbs in their message. Remembering Dr. King by leaving a "thank you" note for your mail carrier borders on mockery of the man's legacy. Remembering Jesus as a white man with blonde highlights skipping across the Dead Sea reminding people to love their god and try not to sin so much is literal blasphemy.
I'm not against peace, by any means. I don't think either of these men brought a message that glorified violence. I do think both of them took a stand against the oppression of people on the fringe. They both spoke out against authorities—religious and political alike. They were both killed for speaking truth to power. We must fight the urge to domesticate these men, to reduce them to something more palatable, something that makes us more comfortable. If we don't, we tell ourselves that their work is done. They did it! Racism is over! Our sins are forgiven! The truth is, the work of neither man is done. Dr. King would still be fighting for the equality of all if he were alive today, and Jesus, well, the funny thing is: he never really did concern himself with sin that much.
We've had more time to spin Jesus’ message into something safer, and the trick there was to come up with the motivation of “sin management.” The Western Christian tradition I grew up in looked down our noses at the Old Testament, because it was written when people were “trapped in sin,” and couldn’t yet be “fully forgiven,” like us Christians. We laughed at books like Leviticus, with “so many rules!” The New Testament was about redemption, and even, perhaps, “freedom from sin.” And yet, we spent the majority of their time discussing what was and wasn’t sin, and how to avoid sin. We had a lot more in common with the writer of Leviticus than the main character of the gospels, who only really even talked about the forgiveness of sin, and, at least according to our records, only very rarely discussed “sinning no more.” In fact, Jesus only seems to have said something to that effect twice, both times in the book of John, and literally in terms like that: “go and sin no more.” Since he’s probably not literally instructing his listeners to be perfect for the rest of their days on earth, I think we can only assume that literal cessation of sin was not something Jesus was terribly concerned with.
The gospel I never got to hear in that church (those churches, really) or in church school for that matter, the one that makes a lot more sense in the context of the day in which is was written, the one in which the twist-ending execution of the main character actually makes sense, is one that was discovered by another oppressed people: Liberation Theology. You see when oppressed people read the Bible, they resonate with the message. They’re the intended audience. The Bible was written for oppressed people, by oppressed people. When privileged people are the only readers for a couple dozen centuries, the plot is lost. In Liberation Theology (and Black Theology and Dalit Theology and Minjung Theology, according to Wikipedia), we encounter a Jesus that would never—ever—have been mistaken to have been okay with slavery, as the Western Church’s Jesus was for far too long. We find a Jesus that is not willing to say, “store up your treasures in Heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy” as short-hand for “it’s okay for white people to horde all the resources, so be willing to be poor and do all the work while on earth, and trust you’ll be rewarded in the next life.” The Jesus of the Western Christian church did magic tricks, like feeding 5,000 (really 10,000+, as grown men were the only ones counted) people with a couple fish and a few loaves of bread. The Jesus of Liberation Theology didn’t rely on magic. In their telling of this story, the “magic” was that when a couple poor children were willing to share their meager lunch with those around them, it inspired everyone there would had brought food to also share, and so a basket initially passed with just a little food in it was filled and re-filled by those at the gathering that could fill it, so that those who could not fill it could still eat. This is a Jesus who says “Heaven on earth” in a literal sense, a Jesus that makes a lot more sense when he says he didn't come to bring peace, but a sword in this context. I've been reading the gospels wrong my whole life because I bought into the domesticated Jesus.
I do believe in peace. But I do think there is a time and place to disturb the peace, such as when you realize that the peace is not being extended to everyone. As I quoted Dr. King saying earlier, I'm talking about breaking a law "in order to arouse the conscience of the community on the injustice of the law" in order to "[express] the very highest respect for law." That's the message both of these men brought to us. Jesus wanted to extend the peace to the outcasts: tax-collectors, prostitutes, and even women! Dr. King wanted the peace to extend to “every man, woman, and child.”
We remember these men poorly when we stay silent in order to keep the peace. When we allow those around us to proliferate hate through hateful actions, hateful speech—however coded, whether packaged as declaration or "joke." I pray we tell their stories—their whole stories—well, in word and in action.