A statue, but no halo, please

A kind of post-mortem glorification has applied to Dr. Martin Luther King. He rocketed from being --  in the minds of such people as J. Edgar Hoover -- a public enemy, to receiving a national monument on the Washington mall; the dedication of countless statues, streets, and schools; and even a place on the facade of Westminster Abbey.

In 1998, ten modern martyrs from around the world were selected to have their status placed in niches above the main entrance to the cathedral. One of these was Dr. King:

King’s prophetic vision combined an explicitly Christian language of freedom and justice with an appeal to American democracy. Peaceful protests would affirm the dignity of African-Americans and embarrass their oppressors before the eyes of the world. His approach was essentially Gandhian. Violence bred violence only. Love must reply to hate.

Dr. King's statue stands in the center of the ten, one arm upraised as if teaching, the other stretched forward, palm upwards, as though pleading for reconciliation. He is placed along with Maximillian Kolbe; Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Manche Masemola (South Africa);  Wang Zhiming; Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia (killed by revolutionaries);  Bishop Luwum of Uganda (murdered by Idi Amin); Oscar Romero;  Esther John (Pakistan); and Lucian Tapiedi (New Guinea).

Surely the secular accomplishments of Dr. King are unquestioned.  So are those of Gandhi, whose methodology he copied. Neither man was perfect, and we have tended to push to the side any question of their mortal failings. Reversing Shakespeare, we have interred the worst side of them with their bones, letting the good live on.

But what was Dr. King's relation to the Christian faith?

One of the few reporters to interview King on his religious thought, was Presbyterian layman Lee Dirks, of the National Observer...King rejected the idea of original sin...[he] accepted the deity of Jesus Christ, and the fact that Jesus Christ was divine, only in the sense that He was one with God in purpose; he believed that Jesus Christ so submitted His will to God's will, that God revealed his divine plan though Jesus Christ; but he did not accept the fact that Jesus Christ was actually God or actually the Son of God, or God manifested in the flesh. Reflecting much of the liberal instruction received in liberal institutions, he considered the virgin birth a mythological story which tried to explain that Jesus Christ had moral uniqueness, rather than the fact that his [virgin] birth was a literal fact.

-- Black and Free, by Tom Skinner (1968) pp. 136-137

He was not, therefore, in any sense an orthodox (with a small "o") Christian. His guiding star -- and that of much of the civil rights movement -- was more attuned to Gandhi; to the philosophy of nonviolent resistance; even to the adaptation of wearing  white caps similar to those used by the Congress Party of India. (These may be seen in the photos of many civil rights marches, and during the March on Washington in 1963.) 

It is altogether proper to honor the memory of Dr. King and his work for civil rights (though he was not alone, nor the entire movement by himself, as modern shorthand might have it). He was certainly martyred for his work in civil rights (regardless of who it was who pulled the trigger or their reasons for doing so). 

But he need not be depicted in addition as a pious saint. A halo adds nothing to his accomplishments, and only distorts the actual historical record. 

A kind of post-mortem glorification has applied to Dr. Martin Luther King. He rocketed from being --  in the minds of such people as J. Edgar Hoover -- a public enemy, to receiving a national monument on the Washington mall; the dedication of countless statues, streets, and schools; and even a place on the facade of Westminster Abbey.

In 1998, ten modern martyrs from around the world were selected to have their status placed in niches above the main entrance to the cathedral. One of these was Dr. King:

King’s prophetic vision combined an explicitly Christian language of freedom and justice with an appeal to American democracy. Peaceful protests would affirm the dignity of African-Americans and embarrass their oppressors before the eyes of the world. His approach was essentially Gandhian. Violence bred violence only. Love must reply to hate.

Dr. King's statue stands in the center of the ten, one arm upraised as if teaching, the other stretched forward, palm upwards, as though pleading for reconciliation. He is placed along with Maximillian Kolbe; Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Manche Masemola (South Africa);  Wang Zhiming; Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia (killed by revolutionaries);  Bishop Luwum of Uganda (murdered by Idi Amin); Oscar Romero;  Esther John (Pakistan); and Lucian Tapiedi (New Guinea).

Surely the secular accomplishments of Dr. King are unquestioned.  So are those of Gandhi, whose methodology he copied. Neither man was perfect, and we have tended to push to the side any question of their mortal failings. Reversing Shakespeare, we have interred the worst side of them with their bones, letting the good live on.

But what was Dr. King's relation to the Christian faith?

One of the few reporters to interview King on his religious thought, was Presbyterian layman Lee Dirks, of the National Observer...King rejected the idea of original sin...[he] accepted the deity of Jesus Christ, and the fact that Jesus Christ was divine, only in the sense that He was one with God in purpose; he believed that Jesus Christ so submitted His will to God's will, that God revealed his divine plan though Jesus Christ; but he did not accept the fact that Jesus Christ was actually God or actually the Son of God, or God manifested in the flesh. Reflecting much of the liberal instruction received in liberal institutions, he considered the virgin birth a mythological story which tried to explain that Jesus Christ had moral uniqueness, rather than the fact that his [virgin] birth was a literal fact.

-- Black and Free, by Tom Skinner (1968) pp. 136-137

He was not, therefore, in any sense an orthodox (with a small "o") Christian. His guiding star -- and that of much of the civil rights movement -- was more attuned to Gandhi; to the philosophy of nonviolent resistance; even to the adaptation of wearing  white caps similar to those used by the Congress Party of India. (These may be seen in the photos of many civil rights marches, and during the March on Washington in 1963.) 

It is altogether proper to honor the memory of Dr. King and his work for civil rights (though he was not alone, nor the entire movement by himself, as modern shorthand might have it). He was certainly martyred for his work in civil rights (regardless of who it was who pulled the trigger or their reasons for doing so). 

But he need not be depicted in addition as a pious saint. A halo adds nothing to his accomplishments, and only distorts the actual historical record.