Thursday, February 18, 2010

Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony, and Jesus

Jesus is important to my thinking and theology as a figure who provides me with inspiration and example but I do not think it is possible for me to believe that Jesus was a divine figure. I do not see him as the central figure around whom the fate of humanity is decided any more or less than a hundred other historical figures who populate my imagination. As I've read history, I've seen that his words of peace and love are neither unique nor original to him. He was a product of his community, his religion, and his circumstances. I am thankful for that confluence of influences that so magnified his beautiful message but that does not make him alone a Son of God. I am unimpressed with biblical "evidence" that he was uniquely divine. It is hard to take seriously documents that were written with the sole intention of proclaiming his divinity. We really don't know anything about him outside of what the gospel and epistle writers choose to tell us. Due to the various literary natures of the gospels and epistles that record the first and second generations' attitudes about him, we are not privy to information that people of our own generation might wish to ask. Outside historical and archaeological sources are limited in the extreme. Indeed, there is almost no historically credible biographical information about him at all. What we have about his birth and life outside his ministry is clearly apocryphal at best...and I'm being generous. What the gospels and epistles prove to me is that there were communities of people who believed in his divinity and that their belief was profound and life-altering. It does not tell me what Jesus felt about himself. It does not prove his divinity.

I'm also not keen on the notion of assigning divinity to other human beings regardless of how many profound lessons they have offered humanity. In my research in feminist theory and history, I've seen the deification process approached in figures like Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King. Every year, there's a new batch of literature glorifying these folks. Within their own lifetimes, the process of deification was already underway. Why? I think it is partially a natural reaction to thanks for their accomplishments and grief for their loss. I think it also has a great deal to do with political expediency. The glorification of the individuals most closely associated with an unpopular or struggling cause has been an effective means of promotion for said cause. The unfortunate side effect is that the darker, more complicated, and more radical elements of the deified individual's work and personality are usually downplayed or intentionally obscured to maintain the popular image of special (and politically tolerable) human value. No one wants to hear that Dr. King was a sexist or that Susan B. Anthony undermined the work of more radical feminists. No one wants to know about their temper tantrums, their grandstanding, their inability to acknowledge or make good use of the talents of others.

Think how carefully one must tread today when speaking of either of these Americans who have been dead for a mere handful of generations. I have been attacked by people who did not care to hear me speak one critical word about these individuals. Although my criticisms grow out research dedicated to social justice for women and people of color, I am perceived as a danger to the integrity and strength of black history and women's history by certain members of my audience who believe that any criticism of their heroes profanes the cause. But these folks, however famous, were not perfect. In fact, like all people everywhere, they could be sorrowfully flawed.

On one occasion when I was giving a speech about Matilda Joslyn Gage (whose history and contributions were willfully undermined by Susan B. Anthony), I included uncomplimentary historical facts about Anthony that were pertinent to my presentation. A woman stood up and chastised me for including this information. Even in her life, Susan B. was known as "Saint Susan" and boy, oh boy, some people won't let me forget it. Following the presentation, the woman sought me out again and, after first indicating that she didn't know much about history, said that it was a shame that people like me were spreading such "lies". It was as if she feared that the entire suffrage movement would fall apart if dear Susan turned out to be merely human after all. (Imagine if I'd told a group of people that I think Jesus probably had sex!)

One sees the same reactions at work with Dr. King. Very little effort is put toward understanding how his belief that women were inferior to men undermined the work of his female co-workers such as Ella Baker who was, arguably, at least as important to the Civil Rights movement as Dr. King himself. One hears little about the role that male clergy played in stymieing the work and obscuring the accomplishments of African American women. Sure, within academic circles, such things are open to discussion but what would happen if such a thing were to be expressed in a popular forum? With so many outwardly racist Americans still resentful that we have a Martin Luther King Day, is it wise to criticize him too loudly? I think that may be the fear at work in the case of these American figures who are currently undergoing a process of near-deification in popular sentiment. It irritates me because it ignores the truth and the truth, however ugly, is better than a pretty lie.

I also call for disciplined study rather than deification because such shallow and romanticized views of our leaders undermines their humanity. Not only their flaws but their radicalism, their relationships, and their fears become lost to us. When we sanitize them, we lose much of the blood, grit, and passion that made them worthy of acclaim in the first place. "I could never be like one of the suffragists," say my women's history students sadly. "They were different. They were braver than we can be."


I've read too many letters and journals of these "superhuman" women to believe that. I happen to know that they were scared to death, overwhelmed, overworked, bitter, angry, frustrated, selfish, self-glorifying, self-loathing, insecure, scattered, ordinary, tired-to-the-bone human beings. They weren't angels. They were human. And that's OK! What good does it do to glorify a saint? Sigh in enraptured admiration all day long and it won't accomplish a thing. But what if you were to emulate the hard work of another human being who you know to be imperfect...just like you? They made terrible mistakes and kept going. So can you. They suffered shame and loss and kept going. So can you. They were defeated again and again and suffered moments of faithless despair then kept on going. So can you! Angels don't make footprints for us to follow. People do.

So I don't believe in making gods of men and women. I'd rather shine a light on their failings as well as their feats. Don't ask me to rhapsodize over any historical figure no matter how glorious their reputation. When people get all glassy-eyed and reverent, I'll just roll my eyes. So if my job is to go knocking heroes off of pedestals, what do I think about divinity itself? Don't I have any faith that there are certain people who are especially chosen and in whom dwells a fierceness of Spirit that leads humanity forward out of the darkness?

Well, I do. Sort of.

I believe all of us are that person in the right circumstances. I'm no especial fan of Dr. King or Susan B. Anthony but I celebrate their good work. In fact, I'm thankful for it whatever flaws I find in their histories. I think both were occasionally and disappointingly self-serving but I know they also served the Good. If I deny any attempts to deify these "larger-than-life" characters, I do not deny that there is an intersection between their work and divinity. Their communities created them and used them. Were they also used by the divine Source? I think they were. I think we are used in spite of ourselves and I think Jesus must have been as well even when he didn't want to be. ("Take this cup away from me" and all that jazz.)

But I also think that it is a mistake to view any of us as having any uniquely salvific qualities. We do not exist outside of the context of our histories and communities. King did not work alone but was upheld, celebrated, taught, and magnified by his community, a community that was already in engaged in the intellectual, legal, and social struggle for justice long before King was a twinkle in his (also impressive)daddy's eyes. Susan B. Anthony didn't invent suffrage. She was a product of her Quaker upbringing and education and her immersion in a community of suffragists who taught her the ropes of the movement, wrote her speeches, and sustained her efforts. Likewise, Jesus a product of his community who for thousands of years developed the ethical and spiritual richness of Judaism. They raised him up, called his personality into being, taught him from childhood, supported his ministry, then magnified his work. He was not dropped into human history out of the sky. He was one of us. Nothing more and nothing less. And you know what? It was enough.


Tracie the Red said...

It's probably politically incorrect for me to say this, but I see, here and there, glimpses of people starting to treat President Obama this way. On Facebook, someone left a very worshipful comment on his page, something like this: "I believe you were sent here to bring the world together and show us a better way to live" or something like that. I can't quite remember the exact wording.

And I couldn't help but leave a comment for that person in return that said: "Whoa, hold on. This is Barack Obama we're talking about, not Jesus Christ. Obama is not our Savior."

And indeed, many people don't really regard Jesus as "Lord and Savior" but I didn't want to go that far into it on Facebook!


Morgaine said...

I like the way you think; reading this post for the second time, I have to say I have come up with the same question in my own mind, again.

Is there a threshold we cross between what we perceive to be human and what we perceive to be divine?

Shawna said...

"The way to make someone harmless is to make them a saint." I don't remember who said it. But it's true. As long as they are someone like you and me, we can aspire to be like them, and the world is a dangerous place for the Powers. The Powers love to make difficult folks into something unattainable. Thanks for Matilda Joslyn Gage. She's cool.

Karen said...

I think it's the examples of Jesus losing the plot, getting furious, and trying to get out of his role that make his story so powerful and compelling. Regardless of any concept of divinity, for me it's the very crux of the matter: that it's a struggle to do right, that it's OK to fall down as long as you pick yourself up and keep plodding on, because you do not have to be perfect in order to live a life in the Spirit.

Taking the humanity out of these stories just means you don't have to think about them. You can glide over the surface and never look beneath. You can do and say all sorts of crazy things, dangerous things, and it's OK because it's all simple and distorted. And it's the single most disrespectful thing I can imagine, to dehumanise another.

Hystery said...

Tracie, I agree with you about President Obama. The danger with assigning him savior status is that when he fails to meet our expectations, many people become bitter, angry, and even disillusioned.


I love your question ("Is there a threshold we cross between what we perceive to be human and what we perceive to be divine?") and I could chew on it for weeks. I think the answer must vary widely depending on culture/religious perspective. I think that one of the key differences I have with monotheists is that the threshold for me as a Pagan is much more permeable than it is with most Abrahamic folks. On the other hand, I have met plenty of Christian Friends for whom the line between sacred and mundane/personal is sketchy at best.


Matilda Joslyn Gage is indeed very cool. I've been working to reclaim her memory. I've written quite a lot about her and continue to be surprised by just how radical and surprising she was.


You wrote: "Taking the humanity out of these stories just means you don't have to think about them. You can glide over the surface and never look beneath. You can do and say all sorts of crazy things, dangerous things, and it's OK because it's all simple and distorted. And it's the single most disrespectful thing I can imagine, to dehumanise another."

You speak my mind. In fact, what you say here is at the heart of my belief in this matter. Thank you for saying it so beautifully.

Poimandrea Alchemi said...

Hm, well, "men create gods", as the Gospel of Philip warned the early Christians, a couple of millennia ago.

I have to admit, I am partial to the Gnostic ideal that we all a spark of the divine within us, whether we are famous, not famous, reactionaries, rebels, or just average work-a-day everyones. The key to Gnostic praxis, is remembering that spark, in yourself and others, what Fox would phrase, "seeing that of g[o]od in everyone."

Just my two cents' worth, from a slightly different angle. :-)

Daniel Wilcox said...

Dear Hystery,

Yes and no. You probably know I agree and disagree with your reflection for reasons different from your own:-)

Let me try and be brief (yeah, right).
First, academically/rationally, I think I agree with most of what you have said.
when it comes to following Jesus (or MLK, Or SB or ____ fill in the blank with other humans) who sought to do God's will and to bring this troubled human society a little closer to Truth, Goodness, and Love, we aren't supposed to be focused on abstract "notions" about Jesus or to try and figure out the detailed facts of his life (many scholars from Albert Schweitzer to Marcus Borg/N.T. Wright, etc. have tried to do that and its a worthy pursuit, though doubtful, but not the CENTRAL purpose).

My purpose isn't to concentrate on abstraction or analysis in relationship to Jesus, but to experience him in transcendence--as representative of Ultimate Reality-- so that I might live out the truths that he promulgated: loving our enemies, being humble, not proud; being pure and loyal, not lustful or selfish; showing compassion for everyone, not focusing on my own success, etc.

Jesus developed disciples, not abstract theologians or historians:-)!

I love history and theology, but there have been countless historians and theologians--including myself at times--who talk a great talk, but don't walk Jesus' walk.

For me, every moment, I seek to live for Jesus (not in the sense of trying to be like a Jewish laborer of 2,000 years ago!! who was executed by the Romans)
to live in Christ--to be God's window for everyone I meet and even many I will never meet but who hopefully I can help in giving and prayer such as the little girl my wife and I sponsored in Indonesia through WV, MCC, HH, etc.

Jesus' or MLK or Susan B. Anthony's shortcomings aren't the point.

Living in Christ is the Good Tidings:-)

In the Light,


Hystery said...

Poimandrea Alchemi, I too believe in a divine spark in all of us. My interpretation is drawn more from a Pagan than a Gnostic background but that's what I'm hearing when I hear "that of God in everyone."


What always amazes me about you is your ability to say, "yes, but..." to me and open up another layer. Posts like this are part of my analytical personality (my Mr. Hyde personality if you will). I think, perhaps, when you speak of living in Christ, of transcendence, and of the focus on the historical, academic discussion of Jesus as being a bit beside the point, I would liken that to my belief in that which Christians call "Christ" and which I differentiate from Jesus of Nazareth. I too live in that divine energy, that mythos (a word I use without the least bit of derision). I partake of that and believe in it. It is the Source of all I understand to be good from a human perspective.

I guess the main point is that I believe that Jesus was good and Christ divine but I don't believe that they were synonymous...except when they were.

Mary Ellen said...

Hystery, that last comment connects to my own thinking - that something about the person Jesus was, what he said, what he did, and the time and place he was planted it, added up to an experience of breakthrough for his community, an experience of Divine Love. All of the christology came later, pinning the breakthrough that the human rabbi called the Kingdom now onto an archetypal GodMan.

It's hard for people when their heroes/sheroes are brought down to human scale, especially if these figures capture an inner possibility and serve as guides to emulate. (My own would be Lucretia Mott. Human, yes, but she lived her light with strength and vigor worth emulating.)

Karen said...

"I guess the main point is that I believe that Jesus was good and Christ divine but I don't believe that they were synonymous...except when they were."


I have spent AGES trying to articulate this. I've felt it for a long time, but couldn't articulate the essence of it. Thank you, thank you, thank you!