It seems especially poignant to me that this year Easter fell just three days before the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. If we didn’t know it already, this reality has been undeniably underscored this week: truth-tellers who threaten human comfort and power get murdered.
It’s tragic that history offers us a way to discern the truth of a message by the fate of its preacher, but this seems to be the trend: tell an uncomfortable truth long enough and you’re likely to lose your life.
What does this reality say about human nature? Something depressing for sure, but I’ll leave the exploration of that to the academics to figure out. Instead, this week I’ve been pondering the cost of being a leader who has the courage and tenacity to tell the truth. We can all agree that we need leaders who do, but how exactly do we sell the vocation of truth-telling when our own human story makes it pretty likely that if you tell a hard truth long enough you will lose your life?
This week HBO’s documentary film King in the Wilderness debuts to the public. It’s a must-see film, because it depicts so beautifully what King himself put into words in his 1967 address, “Beyond Vietnam, Breaking the Silence” — “The calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.” In the film we meet a deeply conflicted King, the young leader who was pulled in so many different directions, who struggled with despair and depression and the desertion of his friends, who staggered under the weight of a message his conscience would not allow him to ignore. The film pulls no punches when it shows the many human failures King also grappled with: he was afraid, he was depressed, he resented what he’d had to give up, he was unfaithful, he was a loner, he struggled under the weight of his vocation of agony.
Recent decades of public awareness of King have focused on the early years of his public career, those years when he was an admired civil rights leader canvassing the South and demanding an end to segregation. This is the Martin Luther King Jr. who had a dream, whose strident demands are softened now through the rose-colored glasses of a chagrined, if not penitent, society. Of course segregation was wrong; what were we thinking to defend something so indefensible?
But what the film shows is not a leader tied to one issue and one issue alone, but rather someone whose conscience would not allow him to remain silent whenever he saw injustice. The reason King in the Wilderness is so compelling is that the film focuses on the last 18 months of King’s life, a time in which the focus of King’s work shifted from civil rights to poverty in America and the immorality of the war in Vietnam. For using his voice to speak out against these injustices, King’s regular detractors became more strident and his friends largely abandoned him.
In a week where we consider the cost Jesus paid to speak truth to power I’ve been wondering how there is any way I could even come close to living like Jesus did. Thank goodness for modern disciples who set out to try to live in the way of Jesus, even with their own failures and human weaknesses; they help us imagine that even we could live our lives in the way of Jesus. Watch the film this week; it will help to gather your own conviction and understand what it will take for your life to be deployed in the work of justice, of gospel in the world. And it will help in the conviction that offering your life for the privilege and calling of telling the truth is perhaps the best vocation of all.
As King himself said shortly before he lost his own life: “It isn’t so important how long you live. The important thing is how well you live.” What better way to truly learn again the story of a Savior who spoke truth to power, who died as a result, and who conquered death?