"Don't call me a saint," Dorothy Day once told an admirer, "I don't want to be dismissed so easily." We love saints and heroes. We have Presidents Day and Martin Luther King's birthday. We used to have Columbus Day. We celebrate Memorial Day and Veteran's Day. We build statues to star athletes and war heros.
Generally speaking, we love the dead ones most. The reason being that once they are dead, we can choose to remember them as we wish without the pesky reminders of who they actually are -- which living people tend to provide.
George Washington cannot tell a lie in our nation consciousness, though the story is apocryphal and an admitted fabrication.
Lincoln never has to deal with bouts of severe depression in the car sale commercials we run in his honor.
Mother Teresa said in the midst of her ministry she had not heard God speak to her for decades.
Martin Luther King's womanizing is quickly pushed behind the curtain as we put him on a pedestal.
I think that King may be the best example of the misguided but not malicious makeover that we give our dead heroes. MLK was a genius. If you've never read his letter from a Birmingham jail or his books, or even watched the movie Selma, you're missing out.
Having just read his book, Strength to Love, I believe that if MLK was alive today, he would be speaking out about the evil of war. Any and all wars.
If, after 9/11, he were to speak to our nation and caution us against replying to violence with violence, we would have turned on him quite viciously. But because he is dead, his blind patriotism is unquestioned. In fact, he was becoming a thorn in the side of the government when he turned against the Vietnam war prior to his assassination.
Indeed in Strength to Love, King says this: "There may have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force, but the destructive power of modern weapons eliminates even the possibility that war may serve as a negative good."
Would our love for King be so great if he continued to force us to face questions about our behaviour as a country? His agitation for civil rights is viewed highly through the lens of modern history. If he was alive to speak against other injustices that still exist, we may not be so quick to praise him.
Would King be closer in national opinion to Al Sharpton rather than how we celebrate him today?
Heros and saints are great. They are important. By their examples, they call us to think bigger and to give ourselves fully to a cause greater than ourselves. But when we ignore their problems and failings, it actually hurts us.
We think, "I'm not perfect like s/he is, so I shouldn't try to do what s/he did." Our heroes and saints lived in a broken and corrupt world, just like we do. They had to deal with the same crap that comes toward all of us. Sometimes, they didn't handle it well.
That gives me great reassurance. God can do great things through people who are sometimes as flawed as me. We live in an era where we crave the humanity of our heroes.
Watch the latest Superman and Batman movies to see that we no longer want paragons of virtue who are untested by emotion and character flaws. I hope we can continue to apply that lens to the real heroes of our current and past world and not just our fictional ideas.