Back in 2003, in what strikes me now as a brilliant and almost comic foretaste of today’s internet-enabled Takedown-Industrial Complex, the late writer Christopher Hitchens turned his pugilistic talents toward Mother Teresa, of all people. The essay, published in Slate on the day after Teresa’s official beatification — the penultimate stop on the road to Catholic sainthood — reads like a particularly erudite YouTube comment. Not content to dwell on just one of her shortcomings, or two, or three, or ten, Hitchens sought, within a quick thousand words or so, to de-habit the iconic nun in one fell acidic swoop, his characteristically vicious prose careening from one indictment to the next. (Except for a few newly newsworthy items, it was a list he knew well, having written an entire book-length essay on the subject, hilariously entitled The Missionary Position, eight years earlier.)
Among Hitchens’ gripes were the uncommon quickness of Mother Teresa’s beatification process, the dubious nature of the “miracle” used as evidence in said process, her well-documented opposition to the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, her outspoken stances against abortion and divorce, her personal and financial ties to likes of Charles Keating and Haiti’s Duvalier family, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. She was “not a friend of the poor,” but a “friend of poverty.” She was a conwoman, a fraud, an ideologue lording over the most captive of audiences.
But what always comes to mind about the piece when my thoughts turn to saints, and to sainthood (and I am thinking about these things today), is Hitchens’ disdain for the self-promotional aspects of Mother Teresa’s ministry. He cites the 500 convents “all bearing the name of her own order,” the soft-lensed appearances in glossies like Ladies Home Journal, in whose pages she regaled the virtues of her intimate friend Princess Diana: The implication being that true sainthood — what with its insistence on “modesty and humility” — is somehow incompatible with the mechanisms of effective public relations.
Which, listen, is probably entirely true for the unsung saints of the everyday, those quiet heroes so often flattened into stiff prose for campaign speech, whose holiness is made manifest by shifts at the local food pantry, or by disproportionately generous personal charity, or by a kind word to a lonely child. But when we talk about the big saints, the saints who, almost totally irrespective of their actual behavior, or accomplishments, come to function as symbols rather than as individuals — Teresa as metaphor for our obligation to the poor, Kennedy as metaphor for American rejuvenation, Mandela as metaphor for the promise of post-apartheid South Africa — the indispensability of the megaphone comes swiftly into view.
One doesn’t become Mother Teresa by accident. Even the best news won’t travel on its own.
Martin Luther King, Jr., America’s foremost secular saint, was a genius of personal sainthood. This is a category distinct, I think, from the intuitive timing of marches, or the subtle wooing and placating of potential rivals — organizational and strategic talents on display, for example, in Ava DuVernay’s recent, brilliant film Selma. I am thinking instead of the man’s comportment, and deployment, of himself, and, perhaps most importantly, the idea of himself.
Cable news pundits will sometimes talk about the “trappings” of the American presidency: soft-power instruments like the windblown lope towards Marine One, the perfect evenness of the grass on the White House lawn, the suffocating surreality of physical closeness to the so-called leader of the free world. King, too, had his trappings, and he seems to have had an infinite understanding of their worth and necessity. This accounts, perhaps, for his startling willingness (startling to me at least, accustomed as I am to our current celebrity culture’s perfunctory and dubious performances of humility, give or take a Kanye West) to employ comparisons between himself and the prophets of yore.
Here he is in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” responding to the criticism that his presence in the city was a case of “outsiders coming in:”
Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
And on the contention that the protests he led, however nonviolent, nonetheless provoked unwanted violence:
Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?
That’s Paul of Tarsus, Socrates of Athens, and Jesus of Nazareth, in four sentences, with nary a mealymouthed “not to compare myself” to be found. Dr. King — Martin of America, they’ll probably call him in the future — understood, uncannily, the company he kept, and understood what a boon that rarefied status was to the cause for which he would eventually lay down his life. To the extent that there exists a statecraft for the eventually blameless individual, MLK remains its most perfect modern practitioner, by far.
But sainthood’s a long game, is my sense. That “eventually” holds weight. In his own moment, of course, without the benefit of an accumulated popular mythology, there were all kinds of qualms about King. It won’t be hard, especially today, on the holiday, amid so much respectable weaponization of the man’s name against the crowds in Ferguson and New York and Oakland and Cleveland and beyond, to find the usual thousand explainers on how the Reverend has been “Santa Clausified,” to borrow Cornel West’s phrase, by the powers of the air. Yes, he was more than the patron saint of civil disobedience, more than a sing-songy dreamer of dreams. Yes: an anti-materialist with loud, repeated questions about the virtues of capitalism, a near-pacifist brazenly opposed to the war in Vietnam.
And while he must have considered these ideas important to the totality of his vision, I can’t help but look again at those quotes from the “Letter.” No mention of Paul’s overzealousness — first, before the Damascene conversion, in persecuting early Christians, then in policing the minutest ecclesiological details in churches near and far. No mention of Socrates’ inexhaustible knack for annoying the exact wrong person at the exact wrong time. Nor even of Jesus’ repeated insistence not on peace, but on the sword.
Just the hit single from each artist: love of the gospel, “commitment to truth,” “unique God consciousness.”
The would-be saint understands the limits of memory — knows, indeed, that sainthood is nothing but memory properly guided. The collective cortex can hold a bullet point, maybe two, and so I’m not entirely sure that King would be disappointed to awaken today and find himself haloed in the soft, late-January light of nonviolence.
He might consider it the fruit of good message control. He might, knowing people, consider three-dimensionality — while nice for marriages and contemporary fiction — secondary to what sainthood can provide: a story with one good character, told to save us from ourselves.
One of my favorite Martin Lawrence riffs, by the way, illustrates how King’s true, remarkable holiness made him in some ways less recognizably human:
I watched him go through Birmingham, Alabama, and this racist white boy picked up a rock…he pitched that motherfucker like he was pitching for the Orioles, and hit Martin in the head.
And all Martin did was say, “Nonviolent, nonviolent. Don’t nobody do nothin’. Nonviolent, nonviolent. My head’s bleeding right now…I’m having a dream right now. Nonviolent, nonviolent…” I was proud….
… But if you’re like me, then one time you would have loved to hear Martin say, “Another one of you motherfuckers hit me with a rock, I’ll beat your bitch ass, you motherfucker. Fuck that, Coretta: these niggers think I’m soft!
I think — or, alright, maybe I just hope — King would hear that bit and laugh a little.
Today we resist that kind of benevolent flattening. Today we “humanize,” which, as a verb, I could take or leave, and, as art, sometimes succeeds brilliantly — as in Selma, where David Oyelowo’s affectingly-acted King fusses with an ascot, confesses tacitly to betraying his wife, makes petty comments about Malcolm X; and where, early in the proceedings, DuVernay takes special care to introduce her audience to the charming, momentary concerns of four little girls in a Birmingham church, just before a bomb spirits them away. More often it makes for mush.
I understand the impulse. Here in the shadow of the 20th century and its countless Great Men gone catastrophically wrong, it makes all the sense in the world to stop the hagiographic presses for good. Better, in this — again, very reasonable — view, to muddle through, ever guarded against the essential compromised-ness of all things. Recently, in Politico Magazine, the writer Gene Demby painted an insightful portrait of the “new civil rights movement,” rising in response to American law enforcement’s tragic inability to leave alive those citizens it exists to protect. The new activists, in Demby’s telling, have shed the “Martin Luther King-Al Sharpton model” of singular leadership — one might call it the sainthood model — in favor of the “Fannie Lou Hamer-Ella Baker model” of more widely shared responsibility.
Explicit in this opposition is the issue of gender, which I hadn’t before fully considered in this context. It’s true — our saints, the loud ones, the big ones, are too often male, and otherwise reflective of the larger culture’s preferences and prerogatives, and this points to the great failing of popular sainthood: it too often, even when truly revolutionary, trades one eye-mote for another.
Still, I wonder.
I wonder if sainthood, with all its inevitable faults and abridgements of complexity, is the best available match for human hardwiring. When I look, for example, at the most recent successful sea-change in popular opinion — regarding privacy and government surveillance in the age of the internet — I see Edward Snowden, whose long and possibly permanent exile from America feels like a martyrdom in miniature.
But maybe Snowden’s the last of a dying breed, and maybe sainthood has run its course and can’t help but pass away. Maybe the extraordinary role of a person like King will sound funny — maybe slightly tribal — to some future generation whose museums are littered with empty podiums and pulpits.
Even to me, after all, he’s already secondhand news, and probably fuzzier for it, however hard I try to read up. Still, I was told a story, one with a good character, and I like to think it’s already saved me from myself — certainly from the country of my birth — a time or two.
I remember that, and I wonder.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.
Gene Demby’s “The Birth of a New Civil Rights Movement”