Martydom As Amnesia: Jesus & Martin Luther King Jr.

“His martyrdom has somehow muffled his message….
We deify him in death, but we demonized him in life.” – Tavis Smiley

Tavis Smiley has recently released a new book, Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Years, in which he argues that Dr. King’s death has overshadowed the subversive message that characterized the end of his career. In his last years, Martin Luther King Jr. came out strongly against the US war in Vietnam and called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” The world saw his concerns expand beyond civil rights as he turned a sharply critical eye towards the “triple threat of racism, poverty, and militarism.” And almost everyone hated him for it.

I can’t help but wonder if the same thing has happened to Jesus. If somehow his martyrdom has muffled his message. If perhaps we have deified him in his death while forgetting that we demonized (and continue to demonize) him in his life.

The Western world revels in Jesus as a martyr and embraces him as a sacrifice for their sins. But when it comes to his message of radical care for the poor and unrelenting nonviolence, we want none of it. This is not unlike Jesus’ first-century audience, who were so threatened by his message that they killed him for it. Make no mistake about it: Jesus wasn’t killed because the Jewish & Roman leaders knew that God desired a spiritual sacrifice for sin, he was killed for challenging the religious and political status-quo of the day.

Racism, poverty, and militarism continue to be the “powers of our age.” Thus, I fear that today Jesus’ message would poll equally as low as it did in the first-century … and I’m more scared that perhaps even western “Christians” who love Jesus the martyr have still not come to terms with his actual message.

2 thoughts on “Martydom As Amnesia: Jesus & Martin Luther King Jr.

  1. I guess I would ask what was Jesus’ primary mission? If salvation of humanity, then social justice would flow from that, but not stand alone. I am always hesitant to make Jesus out to be a social reformer at the expense of his uniqueness as divinity and all that implies. I’m not saying you’re doing that here, Mark, but I know that happens in some circles. I agree, western Christianity has done a poor job understanding Jesus’ “subversive” message and how it relates to social justice. I see Jesus both as martyr, which ushers in the ultimate salvation of humanity, and social reformer, as, to me, it is impossible to separate his message from who he is. I go for the “total package.”

    To echo your point at the end, yes, I think Jesus’ message polls low today, especially among certain groups who claim to be his followers. More specifically I would say that the social justice aspects of Jesus’ message have been transmogrified into applying solely to personal rather than societal problems. “Love your enemy” means being nice to your grumpy next-door neighbor and little more. This is how we get to the paradoxical place where we have a generation of Christians who are genuinely nice people who don’t seem to be bothered by the fact that children and innocent civlians are routinely bombed into oblivion as part of this country’s “war on terror.”


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