The best way to honor a mentor is to practice what they taught you.
It’s the application of the message that validates their work, not the affirmation or lionization they might attract. Their contribution to us all lies in what they taught and worked for during their lives, not in how we reinterpret them after they’ve died or been murdered.
I’ve been thinking about this since reading James Tabor’s book on the differences between Pauline Christianity and the teachings of Jesus and the Jerusalem church led by James and Peter.
In earnest since the 18th Century, biblical scholars and other students of religion have tried to recover the world and debates of the early church, because the principle seems to be that it doesn’t take long for a martyr’s convictions to fade and for their community’s mythology about them to overshadow their actual work.
I suspect that the legacy of outgoing President Barack Obama will be shaped in the same way: even when he was just a presidential candidate, the idea of Obama outshone much of his Congressional and local organizing records. Popular expectations did work in his favor to the tune of two terms as president, but perhaps popular disappointments would have been less severe if members of the public had been inspired to act more than we were inspired to idealize.
Writing about the contemporary legacy of Martin Luther King, the Rev. M. William Howard once said, “If [people] revere Martin, if they treasure his work, and his memory, then the next step is you resolve to pick up the mantle. There’s no way you can do that now without the capacity to analyze, and to strategize, and to be disciplined.”
Discipline, of course, is related to discipleship, the process of learning as if a pupil through association and practice with a mentor or teacher.
What we have of King today is his speeches, the reports of his contemporaries and relatives, and the multi-leader movement he participated in 50 years ago.
That movement has morphed as society has, but what hasn’t changed is that every era’s leaders leave a mantle of action and responsibility behind them, and our best way to honor them is to pick it up and wear it.