An icon of Martin Luther King as a saint might seem odd to some people. Saints are supposed to perform miracles: they heal those who are incurably sick or save others from hopeless situations. Saints have risen above the messy turmoil that marks the lives of most human beings, especially when it comes to sex. They have tamed their physical appetites through fasting and penitential practices, to become exemplars of virtue, shoring up religious institutions. Their faith never falters. And for those who have been especially holy, even their bodies do not decay, like ordinary bodies, when they die.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky describes the confusion that follows the death of a holy monk named Zossima when his corpse begins to stink. Several years ago, when Mother Teresa’s private journals revealed doubts she had suffered during her lifetime, many people were scandalized. Graham Greene’s novels are filled with improbable “saints” whose broken lives confound pious people. Saints with weaknesses or flaws are disturbing. They are supposed to be perfect. Ordinary Christians live vicariously off their perfection.
Martin was not a great ascetic. His enemies relentlessly probed his affairs while he was alive and found that he had a weakness for the affection of women other than his wife. His life was as messy as most of ours. He was hardly an exemplar of the kind of virtue that endorses our religious institutions. Instead, he challenged attitudes bishops and laity had held for centuries. He didn’t perform miracles while he was alive and hasn’t performed any since his death. Yet millions of people remember and honor him as a holy man.
Jesus did not found a new religion. As the incarnate Word of the Father, he showed us God’s true face. Showing us the Father’s face by the way he lived and describing the Father’s reign through parables, his simple command that we love one another, so that we might become Godlike, was the heart of the gospel he preached.
When Jesus told us that God is love, he did not mean that God was an omnipotent being who happened to love, among other things. Rather he was naming God with a verb, telling us who God is by how God acts. He opened for us a new way of being human, that lifts us into the divine perichoresis, the great dance of love, of the Holy Trinity itself. He showed us the personhood of God and taught us how to be persons in relation to one another and to God.
The first Christians simply called their belief in Jesus “the Way.” “The Way” was not a new religion but a completely different mode of being human, a rejection of the ego-centrism that marks ordinary human life. With the passing of centuries, however, “the Way” slowly devolved into a religion, in the minds and behavior of most Christians–an institution with absolute dogmas, effective rituals, and stringent moral codes that promised salvation to individuals.
Religiosity is a natural human need, a manifestation of our instinct of self-preservation. We are frightened by the unknown and seek to control it. Rather than embracing the open ended challenge of Christ’s commandment to love, we choose miracle, mystery, and authority, the three marks of all natural religions—the same three things Christ refused when he was tempted in the wilderness. In the Christian religion, saints have become a major source of power for individuals frightened by the unknown.
Christian saints, however, are not miracle-workers who protect our egos, but human beings who have struggled to break free from their own egocentrism in order to love as Jesus loved. They may also perform miracles. Some few might be celibate. Even fewer might remain incorrupt after their death. What they are not is fonts of power we manipulate to get what we want. By their examples they show us what it means to follow Jesus, “who humbled himself, obediently accepting death, death on a cross!” [Philippians 2: 8]
True salvation is not a once-and-for-all thing. It is a process we choose to enter daily, with the help of God’s grace, a never-ending growth toward perfection. It is a dynamic aim, not a definitive possession. It pertains to relationship, not religion. Martin, like all holy people, embraced that struggle, no matter how many times he may have fallen in his daily life. He spent years trying to bring racial segregation in the United States to an end by peaceful means. Each time he faced angry crowds, vicious police dogs, arrest and imprisonment, he risked his life in that struggle, until he was finally assassinated on April 4, 1968.
If people remember Martin with devotion, it is clearly a different kind of devotion than traditional saints have so often received. People do not honor him because he was perfect. They remember him with love, in spite of his messy life. They do not expect him to intervene in their lives to relieve their suffering. Rather, they look to his example for inspiration. Aware of his failings, they also recognize that his dedication to Christ’s gospel motivated all the major decisions in his life. That dedication led him ultimately to his death, a death he might have avoided if he had been willing to turn his back on the gospel of Jesus and its demands.