The past month has been a frenzy of Royal activity celebrating the Queen’s 60 years as reigning monarch. Along with these celebrations went the annual recognition of her birthday on the first weekend in June accompanied by the handing out of titles and accolades to various members of the public. That means more sirs and dames, and all the paraphernalia of the monarchical system.
Why such outdated titular privileges? Perhaps there is something enticing about titles and medals and that, given half a chance, most of us would jump at the opportunity to receive one.
When it comes to titles and symbols of status, the Church is not far behind. There must be something about us all that bridles at the mediocrity of equality. Even the ancient biblical title “saints,” given to all the people of God, has been hijacked by the Roman Church. Over two millennia, Saints have become a special category of ecclesiastical Knights and Dames.
Protestants generally recognise the title of Saint as belonging to all the people of God. Catholic tradition has narrowed the field by making sainthood a carefully prescribed process in which only those who come up with the definite qualities of “heroic sanctity” qualify for the title.
But in Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought, a series of essays by various American scholars edited by Willis Jenkins and Jennifer M. McBride, one of the essayists argues for a third category of saints. Stephen R. Haynes, Associate Professor of Religion at Rhodes College, Tennessee, calls it “popular sainthood.”
He says, “It is a popular notion of sainthood that transcends institutional definitions. As with Catholic sainthood, its focus is men and women distinguished by their piety and heroism; as with the Protestant conception, sainthood is determined by one’s relationship to God, not one’s standing with the Church. Unlike both, however, popular sainthood is sanctioned by the voice of the people that answers to no religious authority.”
In this sense of sainthood, he argues, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr, who combined activism, ministry, and theology and took on public roles in opposition to the prevailing powers of their time, must be numbered among the most prominent and influential saints of the 20th Century. Both addressed issues of racism in their contexts, speaking powerfully against white privilege in Germany and America.
Both men professed a kind of Christian realism and ended as martyrs for their respective causes.
“They are people so grasped by a religious vision that it becomes central to their way of life, radically changing them and leading others to grasp the reality of that vision.”
Elevating these two 20th Century Christian leaders to sainthood, says Stephen Haynes, comes with its own perils. Being a saint does not put them above criticism. Bonhoeffer and King were flawed personalities but such failings should not undermine or belittle the profound effect they have had. Perhaps that gives us lesser saints and the flawed churches in which we work some hope!
Domestication also goes with the territory. Both men have been made “pin-up saints” for a host of causes: “Rosa [Parks] sat so Martin [Luther King Jr] could walk. Martin walked so Obama could run, Obama ran so all our children could fly.”
The ultimate peril, claims Haynes, is projection. Making them do and say what we want to hear said and done is a fate that even Jesus, the model Saint, does not escape.
The famous Harry Emerson Fosdick of Riverside Church, New York, preached a sermon entitled “The peril of worshipping Jesus,” basing it on Christ’s own words, “You call me Lord, Lord, but you do not do what I say.”
Perhaps Carl Wendell Hines had Fosdick’s words in mind when he wrote Now That He Is Safely Dead, a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr (and, by association, Dietrich Bonhoeffer):
Now that he is safely dead
Let us praise him
Build monuments to his glory
Sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make
Such convenient heroes: They cannot rise
To challenge the images
We would fashion from their lives.
It is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.
• Tom Cadman looks at life through the lens of literature