If you don’t know Fr. Michael Pfleger, senior pastor of St. Sabina Church on Chicago’s Southside, let me tell you: He’s no ordinary Catholic priest. With a haircut straight out of the 1950s and an oratory style more reminiscent of an AME church than the Church of Rome, Fr. Pfleger has been a thorn in the side of Francis Cardinal George, the mayor and city council, business that sell alcohol and tobacco, advertising companies, gang leaders, the Southside Catholic Conference (which attempted to bar St. Sabina’s basketball team from membership back in 2001) … and pretty much anyone else who mistreats or abuses the residents of the city’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood where St. Sabina is located.
He’s a firebrand, to be sure, and although I can see why he grates on some people, I’m not going to lie to you. I kind of love the guy. Which is not to say I agree with him all the time, but I doubt you’ll find any religious leader anywhere in America who’s more dedicated to the people he serves than Fr. Michael Pfleger.
And besides, he’s a troublemaker. How could you not love him.
In any event, after I wrote this piece on Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, it occurred to me that these days a lot of the mainstream discussion of Dr. King really misses the point. I’ve had a hard time articulating what I felt was missing from the annual celebrations and readings of selected passages from Dr. King’s speeches, from the seemingly endless Facebook posts and tweets and so forth, most of which focus on the peace-love-and-understanding aspect of his advocacy. Not that Dr. King didn’t talk an awful lot about peace, love and understanding; and not that that those things aren’t awfully important in their own right. But I’d like to think that Martin Luther King had more to say than Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the central message of which boils down to: “Be excellent to each other,” and “Party On, Dudes!”
So, anyway, along comes Fr. Pfleger, to articulate the point I was struggling with the past few days. Speaking at East Aurora High School in Chicago’s far western suburbs:
Pfleger spoke of what he described as two dangerous trends happening today with King’s legacy.
First, the move to water down what King preached — to make him comfortable, safe and acceptable to the status quo, Pfleger said.
“We must not hijack [King’s] identity, and we must not water down his call to conscience. Martin Luther King did not come to make people comfortable. He came to make us uncomfortable with things as they are and to call things what they ought to be,” Pfleger said.
Pfleger said Americans also must not fall into the trap to celebrate King as a history lesson. “When we just call on him and remember him for a day and then go back to business as usual, I believe we become the modern day co-conspirators to the assassination of who Dr. King was and what he came to do to America,” he said.
“If we want to honor him, we must pick up his mantle and do what he did and live how he lived and witness what he gave to our country.”
A tad melodramatic, perhaps, with the “co-conspirators to the assassination” bit, but he’s right about this: “Martin Luther King did not come to make people comfortable. He came to make us uncomfortable with things as they are.”
That’s what’s missing from a lot of the mainstream conversation about Dr. King these days.
That’s what attracted me to the Letter From Birmingham Jail in the first place, and to its indictment of those who thought of themselves as King’s allies but were afraid to make waves:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Whoa: “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
That’s saying something. That’s saying that before you get to peace, love and understanding, you have to change the status quo. And that should make people who benefited from the status quo for generation after generation more than a little uncomfortable.