When I was a college student–long before streaming or TiVo–my roommate and I made sure we were in the room by 8:00 on Thursday nights. Thursday, arguably the best night of television, offered the Huxtables, the Keatons, and a place where everybody knows your name. We popped corn in our microwave popper (no pre-measured bags back then) and enjoyed at least an hour and a half of topnotch TV.
Thursday night TV
Since then, plenty of things have happened in the lives of the celebrities who made those shows popular. Ted Danson has gone on to make some of the best TV ever done (#thegoodplace); Michael J. Fox has battled Parkinson’s like a champ; and the tiny little actor who played the Huxtable granddaughter Olivia created the wildly popular Disney show, That’s so Raven.
Most of us vintage Thursday-night-TV-watchers have witnessed those developments with only the slightest of connection: a momentary “Hmm,” a cursory, “Interesting,” an occasional, “Awww!” Actors move on, they grow and change. No big deal. Except, ya know, sometimes.
Bill Cosby: criminal sex offender
In 2004, allegation of sexual assault began swirling around Bill Cosby, the patriarch of the fictional Huxtable family. Bill Cosby! The guy who wrote books on fatherhood and marriage, designed children’s programming to promote self-esteem and compassion, and made us laugh every Thursday night. That guy? No way.
I confess with considerable embarrassment that I did not believe his accusers at first. It was 2004, before the keystroke “shift, 3” morphed from number sign to hashtag. And even though I myself had experienced significant harassment from male bosses and coworkers over the years, I still questioned the victims. (Could we please stop jumping so quickly to that response?) Before long, I knew I was on the wrong side of justice.
To date, Bill Cosby has been accused of criminal sexual behavior by approximately 60 women. He’s been convicted, appealed, and I truly do not know what all. But the guy we once thought of as America’s Dad is now considered a dirty old man (at best).
More celebrity sex offenders
And he’s not the only once-beloved celebrity publicly shamed and banished due to sexual misconduct. The list is long: Louis CK, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and R Kelly are just a few of the accused. History will tell, but I will be surprised if these guys ever resurface. No more awards, hit shows, or sold-out arenas.
And yet. Despite damning accusations for his own womanizing behavior, Rev. Dr. ML King still garners respect from most of us who consider him a hero. What’s the difference? Why do we who will not even watch re-runs of our former favorite television show give King a pass?
Rev. Dr. ML King too?
In short, it’s complicated.
First, I was slow to believe the allegations against King too, especially the so-called “intel” collected by the FBI. I still doubt those charges. In today’s climate, it is hard for us to fathom the rampant criminal racism of the Jim Crow South. But I’ve no doubt that falsifying documents would have been considered a necessary means to the end of the “uprising” in the South. What better way to silence a popular preacher than to unveil his very human frailties? Well, you embellish the truth with juicy details that make his sin downright unforgiveable, that’s how.
So, I was skeptical. Very. Then, some years ago, I met Dr. Richard Lischer, a man who has studied the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as much or more than anyone. I asked Lischer directly, “Was ML King a cheater?” He didn’t hesitate. “Yes. He was intentionally unfaithful and not just once or twice. His behavior was unquestionably immoral.” Ouch.
Philanderer King? Yes, and . . .
Lischer had interviewed King’s closest associates—Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, and Wyatt Tee Walker. He knew King’s family members and friends. I trusted his report. Of course, there IS a difference between infidelity and rape. I can’t say whether he ever committed an actual crime. But he was, according to reputable sources like Lisher, a misogynistic* adulterer.
Yet Lischer also sees King as a visionary.
“[Lischer] found in [King] a man who believed there were transcendent truths that had the power to change hearts and move them away from the political and social policies of segregation. Among those truths, King focused again and again on a few select themes of love, suffering, deliverance and justice.”
King’s influence on Kingdom work
His influence bent our attention towards the injustice happening all around us. And King did so because of his understanding of God and knowledge of scripture. He quoted scripture when he defended the poor, opposed segregation, and fought for justice. King loved, and longed to be more like, Jesus. He also had his own demons, his own failings. His obedience to God’s call to justice was pure; his humanity was flawed. He did things few of us would condone, and he led us to a new understanding of what it means to be called by God to lead an oppressed people. King was a visionary, a hero, a godly man. AND he was a sinner in both big and small ways.
Celebrating MLK Day
So, what do we do with ML King Day? I suggest that you can honor the day without worshipping the man. Use the day to honor God, recognizing how God used a remarkably ordinary human to help make his contemporaries more aware of how to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Celebrate the courage it required for this ordinary man to be obedient to that Gospel message, even unto death.
And in all things, let faith guide you as you follow Christ, honoring God by recognizing your humanity and reaching for righteousness. But don’t demand perfection from others or from yourself. You’re way too good for that!
*The Montgomery Bus Boycott owes much of its success to Rosa Parks tenacity and commitment to the cause. Yet, King neglected to invite her to join the podium guests at the March on Washington. There are plenty of other examples of King’s disregard for the contributions of women. Yes, he was a product of his time, but since I don’t let racist white people off with that excuse, I’m not going to give King that out either.
(Note 6 & 7 in this article: https://www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/ten-things-to-know-about-the-march-on-washington)