Our Prophet

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  is a man who needs to be regarded as a prophet -- on a par with Isaiah, Moses, Jesus, and his beloved Amos. A man who exemplified the highest possibility of a Christian man of faith -- to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

One of my biggest regrets as a Catholic (one that I hope is addressed in the fullness of time) is that Martin cannot be venerated officially as a saint in my tradition, though his consciousness, his vision and his deeds far outstrip the paltry good done by most popes, cardinals, nuns and bishops. Actually, I might retract the statement about nuns, since many of them selflessly labor in the health and educations fields, constantly under spiritual assault by small-minded pastors and bishops. Indeed the female spirit is so often greater than that of the average well-connected, fancily-shod male prelate.

Martin was a stand-out. His epic "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is a stirring cry of loving disappointment with his fellow Christian ministers. They urge him to slow down, be patient, avoid provoking violence. Martin calls them out for what they are -- ministers of the Church, not of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Their Church is the self-satisfied champion of the status quo, protecting the interests of the powerful against the powerless, and calling that religious. Martin criticizes their inability to stand against evil and their eagerness to hush the oppressed.

How many others like Dr. King are there in the world? Many probably. But few have his penetrating eye, his clarion speaking voice and his soaring spirit. Few dared to insist on a path to justice that was itself just. Few trusted, like him, that "we will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands." He, unlike the pious and the patriot, trusted that the dream of the Founders, based in humanity's eternal quest for freedom, would one day -- through struggle, tears and blood -- prevail.

Martin Luther King Jr. deserves his day on the calendar. In the 1950s, his was not the only voice calling out for justice, nor was he the movement's ablest organizer. He was not the most blameless, nor the only martyr. But by a strange coincidence of history, personality and luck, he came to exemplify Samuel's midnight summons with his version of "Here I am Lord."
I am grateful to God for our St. Martin. I am grateful that he shouldered the burden of becoming the public face of a movement that was reviled and inspirational -- that he put his life at risk, and the lives of family and friends, to advance the cause of a people. He not only led his own to greater freedom, but helped to save the souls of generations of Americans who acquiesced in a system of slavery and degradation.

Not a paper saint, nor a priest's bland-yet-genial mentor, he was a man whose life became greater than the sum of his voice, actions and writing. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks with a voice as old as the 8th century BC prophets, in whose steps he trod, and as modern as the Occupy movement. The search for justice will live as long as there are human beings in bondage. As long as humanity thirsts for righteousness, Martin will be among us as an exemplar and a challenge to our complacency and accommodation with evil.