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The personal blog of Nate Tinner.

The Vanity of Holidays

“I guess Dr. King really didn’t die in vain.”

These were the words spoken to me by an older, African-American lady at my workplace, a Christian bookstore.
I must tell you that at this particular Christian bookstore, older African-American ladies make up a substantial portion of the customer base, so my interaction with one on this day was inconspicuous up until that point in the conversation. Actually, “conversation” is an overstatement, since I was really just nodding politely and providing affirmative interjections whilst harboring much more critical thoughts in my head — to be blogged about thereafter. Word to the wise: that is how you survive retail.

But why would she utter these words to a someone like me, just trying to make a living after graduating from a prestigious university and quitting a menial desk job working with the most underprivileged kids in the New Orleans? The question ran through my head as the words rolled off her tongue, but I quickly realized the context of my small-talk: She was probably in some Civil Rights marches herself, fighting for what she thought was right. Therefore I am the fruit of her labor. And in some ways, I respect that.

But am I really to be congratulated for being a black male who holds down a full-time job selling clearance-rack kitsch to penny-pinching church mothers? And do I really owe it all to Dr. King?

Now while I’m sure many of my social and political freedoms in America as a Black male can be boiled down to the work of Civil Rights Movement, but I think the context of my conversation with the lady in the bookstore was enough to jar me into a more inquisitive assessment of what she probably has thought for decades, without question.

She and I are both Christians, believers in Jesus, a Jewish man we believe to have been raised from the dead by God to give supernatural life and power to those who believe in and dedicate their lives to him. In fact, the entire reason she sought me out was to show me a greeting card she found at a big-box retail chain that was based on the “names of God” theme that captivates Protestant Christians all over the country (the idea that God is described with a variety of names in the Bible meant to apply to the Christians’ varying struggles and emotional/spiritual needs). But when she became apparently overcome at the thought of a young, Black man getting ahead in life (an overstatement, from my perspective), she referenced the first hero to come to mind who gave his life for a cause, and it was not Jesus. It was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I suppose I can see just about every reason why that is a logical progression for her, but I don’t exactly follow her on that path of reasoning. I don’t attribute my success to Dr. King, I don’t believe in the general ethos of the Civil Rights Movement, and I am apt to believe I am who I am because Jesus died for me. Not Dr. King.

Even just this past week, another lady, made a similar comment to me about being a Black man studying theology at a seminary (where she also studies), which I realize is exceedingly rare, statistically-speaking. She made no comment about Dr. King, but soon after our interaction I realized that the holiday itself, meant to “honor his legacy”, was coming up. And now here we are.

Today, many Blacks (and White, and others) will extol the virtues of a man they see to have been a hero, a true martyr, and an American icon. He has a national holiday all the same as Jesus, though with less fanfare associated with his namesake at retailers nationwide. But Americans indeed honor him with a similar honor, attribute to his legacy a similar efficacy, and with his efficacies a similar connection with present-day freedoms.

But Christianity says Jesus is more than a holiday. Perhaps a holiday is beneath him, even, an insult (if other men and traditions get similar treatment and reverence not even a month later). And while I'm sure I wouldn't have liked segregation and Jim Crow laws any more than the guy in the next pew, Christianity says it is better to suffer quietly and await God's vindication—especially since Jesus himself did as much, and incomparably more, having been completely innocent in every way.

So when a person who does not know me, but finds a kinship with me because of our common skin color (and who also shares the ultimate kinship of following Jesus together), flattens my experience to the legacy of Dr. King, I cringe, even if just on the inside because I don’t want to insult a customer on the sales floor.
There is probably more to that little old lady in the bookstore than I will ever be privileged to know, and whose own experiences have shaped her in a way that led inevitably to the bombshell she dropped on me that day. But I do know this: Dr. King did not die for me. And if he died to create peace and unity among Americans in any lasting, absolute sense, he indeed died in vain.

Otherwise, Jesus did.

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