It has been more than 25 years since Martin Luther King was assassinated and, not infrequently, I recall his funeral. It was not like I was there or anything, I only watched it on television, but a little sub-drama occurred just as the television cameras were leaving the cemetery that etched itself permanently into my consciousness and still speaks to me of faith and fidelity.
The grave-side ceremony had just taken place and the last eulogies and prayers had been given. The television cameras were being rolled away when they caught sight of an old man, a Black, perhaps 75 years old, standing outside the cemetery. Reporters tend to be merciless when they see tears and so a couple of microphones and cameras descended upon this solitary old man as he cried his tears.
“Why are you crying? Why are you sad at this man’s death? What did Martin Luther King mean to you?” they asked.
Choking back tears, the old man replied: “He was a good man, a faithful man. He and Malcolm X. He stayed with us. He never gave up on us even when we gave up on ourselves. He stayed with us even when we weren’t worth staying with!”
I doubt that one could write a better description of faith than is contained in the words of this old man. Faith, first of all, is about fidelity, about being faithful, about not giving up on our commitments and our communities. Conversely, infidelity is more about the betrayal of these than it is about having haunting doubts about the existence of God. Thus, to use an example I used in this column some time back: If I lie in bed some night and am plagued by doubts because I cannot imagine or feel for myself the existence of God and, on some other night, I lie on the same bed and can sense, with considerable feeling and security, God’s existence, does this mean that on the first of those nights I have a weak faith and on the latter I have a strong one?
No. It means is that on the first of those nights I have a weak imagination and on the other night I have a strong one. Faith, ultimately, does not depend on the imagination, even though the imagination can be helpful. Faith test is in action, in being faith-ful. It is no accident that the word faith-ful literally says to be full of faith.
Daniel Berrigan, always colourful and always deep, has his own way of putting this. Asked in an interview to pinpoint faith’s deepest seat, he states something to this effect: Where does your faith reside? Your faith is rarely where your head is at. It is also rarely where your heart is at. Your faith is where you ass is at? Where are you sitting? What are your hands doing? What are you involved in? What are your commitments? Are you faithful to anything? That will show, or not show, the quality of your faith.
The real problem of atheism and lack of faith today lies, I submit, more in our infidelity (in walking away from our relationships, our commitments, our values, and our communities when these get painful) than it does in the secularism that so often deprives us of a felt-presence of God. We have a weak faith because we are so rarely faithful. It is not so much that we turn away from God as it is that we turn away from each other. My faith is weak not so much when I cannot imagine the existence of God, but when I walk away from community, ecclesial and civil, with the despairing attitude: “They aren’t worth it! They aren’t worth staying with!” We lose faith when we give up. It is significant that Jesus stated that the person who perseveres to the end will be saved.
Perhaps the greatest gift we can give to our families, our world, and our church is the gift of our fidelity – to say to them: “You can rely on me. I won’t always be perfect, but I will be here. We won’t always get along with each other and there will be times, many times, when there will be every kind of tension, jealousy, pettiness, and immaturity between us. But I won’t walk away from you. I won’t leave, in spite of everything. I’ll stay with you.” That’s what it means to have faith.
And … when they lower the casket at our funerals, there is no better eulogy that could be given than if those nearest us, with gratitude in their hearts (if not with tears in their eyes), turn to each other and say: “She [he] was a good person because she stayed with us, she was faithful. She believed in us even when we had stopped believing in ourselves. She stayed with us even when we weren’t worth staying with.