Guest Post: Martin Luther King Jr. – Biography or Hagiography?

Today’s guest post is by George Dolansky. In response to some online conversations that took place on and around Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, George wanted to bring some clarification to the roles of Biographies and Hagiographies. There was disagreement one prominent blog, regarding whether or not to ignore Dr King’s personal failings on a day commemorating him and his achievements. The accusation was that if ignored, we the authors and readers would be condoning hagiography. What is that? Read on and hopefully George can bring clarity to this question.


Last month, the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birth arrived as it usually does this time of year.  Perhaps you posted a meme with your favorite MLK quote on facebook.  Most likely you read one or two posted by others.  Maybe you also have a friend who brought up King’s moral failings.  If you’re a little obsessive like me, you looked for some reason to disbelieve it.  However, in this case you would find it to be true: Martin Luther King engaged in extra-marital affairs.  Perhaps you think it improper that your friend bring up such an unsightly detail on the day meant to commemorate the man.  You already know how your friend would rebut your concern: with an affirmation of the need for us to know the whole man.

Lest you think this friend of yours a racist, let me assure you that Martin Luther King is in good company.  Martin Luther (the 16th century theologian whom MLK was named after) was an anti-Semite.  Lest you think this a conspiracy against Protestants, I have heard it said that if a Pope was named Pious or Innocent, he was usually anything but.  It isn’t just high churchmen either.  One movie I saw about St. Francis of Assisi (the saint whose name the current Pope has chosen as his own) had a scene where the monk threw himself into a pile of snow and masturbated (yes, I just wrote that) in front of his justifiably shocked disciples.  Oh, and lest you think this is only about men, Mother Teresa has been accused of accepting money from ruthless dictators to finance her ministry and of denying pain medications to those suffering painful maladies on the grounds that pain is good for discipleship.  It isn’t limited to religious people either.  Who in America today doesn’t know that America’s Founding Fathers philandered?  Thomas Jefferson and George Washington had slaves that they fathered children by.  Benjamin Franklin’s sexual exploits in France have been credited with turning the tide of the American Revolution.   The day that Nelson Mandela died is when I learned that he spent his young life perpetuating the violence he forsook.  This tendency isn’t even just about people.   Modern writers of American history seem to often tell a story of a country that seeks to uphold the notion that all men and women are equal… by finding every possible caveat to that assertion.

It is rare that you come across anything or anyone deemed worthy of remembering that is found to be genuinely above reproach.  We place a high premium on knowing the dark side of everybody and our history books, documentaries and biographies give us more than ample opportunities to indulge this.  There is a cost to this pattern though.  The cost is that we have no heroes and have crippled our aspirations.  This is why we need Hagiographies today.  For those of you who don’t know, a hagiography is a sort of biography of a saint that emphasizes what made him or her so saintly.  Furthermore, it invites the reader to emulate the saintly characteristics of the subject.  The point of the hagiography is not to give a full-orbed depiction of the man or woman it is about, but to spur the reader on towards what was good about that man or woman. I think that Martin Luther King is worthy of hagiographic depiction. The day we commemorate his ministry is about far more than the man himself.  It is a day meant for us to call to mind the story of a people who lived under oppression and a man who simultaneously lead those people to cast off the oppression and love the oppressors.  It is the one national holiday I feel comfortable celebrating in church, for it is one of a few places where some of the highest aspirations many Americans share and the Kingdom of God look an awful lot alike. Martin Luther King’s dream is a dream worth not only dreaming today, but emulating in our lives as well.

Of course, none of this is meant to deny the need for sound historical and biographical research, even when such research unearths things we may wish weren’t true.  The hagiography cannot replace the biography.  What goes unrealized is that the converse is also true; the biography cannot replace the hagiography.  So let us call to mind one who is worthy of our praise and that highest form of flattery: imitation.  Martin Luther King stood for justice when justice was denied.  Martin Luther King stood for love even in the midst of that denial of justice.   May we go and do likewise.

– George Dolansky

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  • Nathan Bubna

    Good stuff! Thanks, George. Now if i can only remember to bust this out on certain friends next MLK day…