With the annual and somewhat functional recognition of certain versions of the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. behind us in 2013, let me ask this: What do Jesus, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and King have in common?

I admit the answers could be many: Significant historical voices and lives, shared messages of peace and harmony, tragic assassinations, and more.

And while these are all credible answers, I suggest the most important commonality among Jesus, Gandhi, and King is how their legacies have been manipulated by the privileged in order to create a mythology of the passive radical.

Consider Jose Vilson’s framing of how King serves other people’s purposes:

“For some revisionists, MLK Jr. was either one of two things: a staunch conservative who lived patriotically, owned guns, and worked towards self-help, or he was a such a commercial pacifist whose message for peace followed every rule in the book and posed no real threat to the establishment. Then, there are those who, after having recognized MLK’s full history, still want to use his name for things he would never entertain, like breaking unions and limiting opportunity to a full education to only the ‘good’ kids, whatever that means.”

It is at Vilson’s second point—framing radicals as “commercial pacifist[s] whose message for peace followed every rule in the book and posed no real threat to the establishment”—I want to pause for a moment.

Passive Radicals?

My journey to critical consciousness may very well be anchored in my confrontation as a child and teen with the Hollywood portrayals of Jesus common at mid-twentieth century. I shared a revelation found in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple in a letter from Nettie, in Africa, to Celie:

“All the Ethiopians in the bible were colored. It had never occurred to me, though when you read the bible it is perfectly plain if you pay attention only to the words. It is the pictures in the bible that fool you. The pictures that illustrate the words. All of the people are white and so you just think all the people from the bible were white too. But really white white people lived somewhere else during those times. That’s why the bible says that Jesus Christ had hair like lamb’s wool. Lamb’s wool is not straight, Celie. It isn’t even curly.” (pp. 140-141)

Just as the church and Western culture created a mythology of Jesus as white, the Hollywood versions of my youth clearly established Jesus as passive, meek, exactly as Vilson characterizes one version of King—”no real threat to the establishment.”

Many years later, I included the film Gandhi in a unit that explored Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, King (about whom all students know only “I Have a Dream”), and Malcolm X (a figure students had either never examined or had been taught he was a negative figure in history). That film portrayal of Gandhi perpetuated the passive radical myth in Gandhi through a British actor, able only to mask the whiteness but not abandon it entirely.

The life and work of activist and historian Howard Zinn has catalogued and confronted what Nettie learns in Africa: Those in power who control the images and the narrative use those images and narratives to feed their privilege.

The passive radical myth allows the privileged in the U.S. to wield the mask of praise to hide their self-interests.

Jesus, Gandhi, and King are reduced to cartoons, single-dimensioned, almost entirely upon a middle-class and white norm of “articulate.”

In school (including Sunday school in churches), children are led in close analysis of the rhetorical power of their words, keeping the gaze almost entirely on the mechanics and not the reasons why those words were needed, the consequences of what those words did and could incite.

As Nettie discovers, however, if anyone looks carefully, even at the words that the passive radical myth uses to honor rhetoric over action, the truth is right there before us.

Even in the film, Gandhi challenges the term “passive resistance” and prefers “civil disobedience.” And many Jesus scholars note Jesus overturning the tax collectors’ tables may best reflect the radical Jesus.

For America, the mythology of King, the distorted mythology of King as passive radical, must be confronted and dismantled if any of the promises King envisioned can become reality. As Zinn notes,

“Martin Luther King himself became more and more concerned about problems untouched by civil rights laws—problems coming out of poverty. In the spring of 1968, he began speaking out, against the advice of some Negro leaders who feared losing friends in Washington, against the war in Vietnam. He connected war and poverty….King was turning his attention to troublesome questions….And so, nonviolence, he said, ‘must be militant, massive nonviolence.’” (pp. 205-206)

Like Nettie, we must look carefully at the words, and not be distracted by the fabricated images, the narratives creating the manufactured myth of the passive radical. King, especially in his last days, offered words that refute that myth:

“These are revolutionary times; all over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression….We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of Communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch-antirevolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, Communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and for justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.” (“Conscience and the Vietnam War,” in The Trumpet of Conscience)

These words of a genuine radical ring true today, but are unlikely to be read in a classroom or quoted from a political stump, or echoed in the pulpits of any church.

Nettie’s revelation about Jesus leads to her own blossoming self-awareness: “We are not white. We are not Europeans. We are black like the Africans themselves. And that we and the Africans will be working for a common goal: the uplift of black people everywhere” (p. 143).

Knowledge is the fuel of the liberatory impulse, and thus, it is in the interests of the privileged to manufacture characters and narratives of the passive radical in order to maintain the imbalance of equity that enslaves the promise of democracy in “proneness to adjust to injustice.”

King’s embracing unionization, direct eradication of poverty, minimum salaries, the eradication of permanent war, and the insidious racism maintaining the historical divisions between impoverished whites and blacks will not be allowed in that myth since the voice of a true radical is also the voice meant to lead to action.