Today's musing brings together two different photographs which may shed light on what it means to "Take up your cross and follow me." This first photo is of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., removing a cross from in front of his home, in the presence of his small son. This photo gives a different slant on the meanng of that directive, as he literally "takes it up" out of the soil in front of his home.
These days, it's politically correct and popular to pay homage and lip service to him, especially on the national holiday named in his honor. On days when major public figures are quoting him (often public figures whose policies and programs are in direct contradiction to everything he stood for), I think about the fact that his views were not always widely popular. I once listened to a talk by Philip Yancey, who grew up in the Deep South. Yancey did not grow up in a church which would have embraced the idea that "Love Wins." Rather, the pastor of Yancey's church viewed King as an agent of Satan and referred to him in sermons as "Dr. Martin Lucifer King, Jr." (Lucifer being the given name of the devil).
Indeed, in spite of giving lip service to this American icon and wanting to jump on the bandwagon of supporting him, most people don't actually support King's views even today. For instance, how many people truly stand with Dr. King in the sentiment expressed in the following photograph? Nonviolence, after all, was the the underpinning for revolution he led in the Deep South:
In summary, current and widespread public homage to a man who was largely hated and reviled in his time is a keen reminder to me that what seems "right" and "correct" and "popular" at any given point in history may not be, in fact, the view that ultimately will be shown to be "right" and "correct" and "true" in the long view of time. Indeed, if people truly "believed" in the message Dr. King taught, both the domestic policy (social programs for the poor) and foreign policy of the USA (peacefulness and nonviolence) would have been very different for the last fifty years, wouldn't it?
And then, an even more frightening mental exercise, is to contrast this hatred of King in his time to the popularity of another great and persuasive orator, adored by the masses. A man who was so popular that tens of thousands of people rallied behind him, a man who once swayed an entire nation to act in favor of his views. But today he is universally reviled. Namely, Adolph Hitler. Hitler rallied the entire German nation, united them behind a cause which turned out to be one of the keenest challenges to morality that Western civilization has ever faced (and a test it failed).
I can never forget -- we must never forget -- that Hitler was immensely popular in his time. Those who opposed him were marginalized, ridiculed, ostracised, and even sent to their deaths. I wonder to myself, if I had lived in that time, would I have done and thought as everyone else did and thought, or would I have dared to think "outside the box" to take up the cross of opposing Hitler?
I conclude with a photograph, below, which stands as a frightening reminder of the fact that we must always be vigilant to do what is right, and not what is popular.. According to Wikipedia, the lone man in this photograph is believed to be Auguse Landmesser. He attempted to marry a Jewish woman, but his marriage was not allowed because to do so would bring impurity to his "race." They had children anyway. Both parents were killed during the war, their children orphaned. Would you or I be willing to pay that price? Or would we be among the others, the multitudes, who were making the "Heil Hitler" salute? It's easier, I fear, to say "of course not!" than to practice that reality in everyday life, to think for one's self and to speak truth to power not only when it's convenient, but also when it's not. For sometimes, this not only involves great sacrifice and risk, but also discernment about what "is" true as opposed to what is merely "popular" or "easy." Sometimes, it requires thinking in ways that are countercultural. It may even require us to take a stand that is out of step with the whole of our society. That is more than most of us hope to imagine. But it may be what we are called to do.
Detail of the famous photograph (by an anonymous author) in which one man, believed to be August Landmesser, refuses to give the Nazi salute. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for this image.