On Sunday, Virginia-Highland Church will honor Saint Martin Luther King, Jr. Oh, I know the secular holiday was in January, but the church always has honored saints on the anniversary of their martyrdom or death, not their birth. Dr. King was martyred on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. This Sunday, our church will honor him as one of the saints of the church, and the Spelman College Glee Club will join us in worship.

I’ve tried to get other churches to recognize this as the proper day to honor this saint, and not just because it is how the church recognizes other saints. I am afraid that the secular observance of Dr. King’s birthday will someday be completely co-opted like so much of his legacy already has been. It’s not surprising that businesses put washing machines and dryers on sale on that Monday in January.

There is profit to be made, and retailers clearly are not concerned that there are many of us still alive who remember that time. Right-wing politicians dare to claim Dr. King’s name when they cry out against the “oppression” of the Christian majority. Those who have been the majority and have held all of the power in this country will not give it up without a fight, and they will use any tool at their disposal, even an African-American saint who was oppressed and abused by them.

Dr. King’s message and story will be sanitized and tamed, just as Jesus’ has been. If a peasant rabbi who died penniless can be used with a straight face by preachers who live in mansions, then make no mistake: a black prophet of justice will be used by powerbrokers to keep their power and oppress those who dare to challenge them. That is why we cannot celebrate only Dr. King’s birth with a secular holiday of service. We MUST remember his martyrdom. He did not die because he said nice things about the powers and principalities and forces of oppression. If we forget that then they didn’t take him from us; we sold him to them for 30 pieces of silver.


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Rev. Michael Piazza