This is the first time our culture will celebrate MLK Day following the release of the JFK files. Why is that significant? The much-anticipated release was frustratingly incomplete on Kennedy but explosive in unexpected ways, including the secret life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
King’s repeated infidelity has been public knowledge for a long time, but the Kennedy files allege details that are as shameful as they are shocking. I will not slander King by sharing the specifics, but suffice it to say, it paints a very sordid picture of his private life. It is unclear whether the report is verified information, but regardless of the extent of its truth, it was painful to read for those like me who share a great admiration for King.
And so this MLK Day, in particular, we are left wondering what to do with our deeply flawed hero and his life’s work. Or perhaps King is no hero to you? Perhaps his sexual indiscretions have long been your means of discrediting his life and work and these newest allegations only validate your contempt? Whether one chooses to lament or leverage King’s sins, the question is the same: Is the beauty of King’s dream negated by the ugliness of King’s secrets?
The answer, unequivocally, is no.
There is a logical fallacy endlessly perpetuated in this age of polarized outrage known as ad hominem. An ad hominem seeks to discredit an argument by pointing out the character flaws of the one making the argument. But the reason ad hominem is a fallacy is because truth is truth, regardless of the wrongs of the one speaking truth. The most deplorable person could deliver “I Have a Dream” and the words would ring true nonetheless. So whatever King did wrong does not negate the legacy of what King did right, for the truth of justice will always transcend the transgressions of justice’s champion.
But there is more to the story when it comes to King. Granted his failures do not disprove his public work, but what about his Christian faith? Despite our culture’s attempt to rewrite his legacy into a nonreligious social justice movement, King was, first and foremost, a follower of Jesus Christ. He was a pastor not a politician, a theologian not a theorist, a man whose convictions emerged from the teachings of Scripture and whose activism was simply the application of Scripture. So perhaps the rule of ad hominem guards the truth of King’s revolution, but what about King’s religion?
This is a very important question for Christians in our day to answer. Increasingly, the claims of Christianity are being dismissed due to the embarrassing behavior of those who call themselves Christians. The “Christians are hypocrites” objection burns hotter than ever, and speaking candidly, we Christians are providing plenty of fuel for the fire. But do the failures of Christians actually discredit the message of Christianity? Ironically, they only prove the message.
Jesus came, not to reward the righteous, but to forgive the sinful. Therefore, our failures viewed through that purpose are in no way a threat to Jesus, instead they are the very reason for Jesus and his paradoxical religion we call the gospel.
If Jesus came to establish a conventional religion, then yes, the failures of his followers are a threat to his religion. This is because conventional religions are essentially systems of moral improvement that reward faithfulness, thus the system must be judged on its effectiveness to do just that. That is, the success of religion is based on the religious success of its adherents.
But what if you have a religion where the central tenant is not to teach you how to succeed as your own savior but to diagnose you as a failure in need of a savior? In that religious construct our failures aren’t the threat; they’re the point. And religious hypocrisy is not sinful weakness but self-righteous strength.
One of the unique characteristics of the Bible is how uncomfortably honest it is with the flaws of its main characters. At times it appears itself to be a top-secret file with sordid details exposing the failures of its heroes. But this is because they are not the heroes of the Bible. They are there to make known in the most authentic way the need for the true hero–Jesus Christ, the faithful Savior of faithless people.
I’ll be completely honest. If history has taught us anything, it’s that we Christians cannot commend ourselves. We can only commend our Savior. All we have is Jesus and the hope that his faithfulness is stronger than our failures, that his grace is greater than our sins. And I believe King would be the first to admit that. In fact, I’ll let him do just that. In the same year he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, he said these lesser known words: “The Christian faith is the affirmation that man cannot save himself…Bound by the chains of his own sin and finiteness, man needs a Savior.”
Martin Luther King was a deeply flawed person who needed a Savior. So am I. And may I humbly suggest that so are you? But if what King said is true then our need is not a threat to the Christian faith. It is, in fact, the very point of the Christian faith.