The previous week marked another anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” With only 271 words, dedicating a field to fallen soldiers, he delivered the most iconic presidential speech in U.S. history. Tragically, within 18 months, Lincoln would be dead, assassinated for prying open the door of freedom.
This week’s anniversary reminded me of one of Anthony DeMello’s parables, this one about a man who invented the art of making fire. He took his fire-making tools to the cold, snowy north, and there taught a village this life-preserving craft. The people, grateful for the gift they had received, honored the Fire-Maker.
The leaders of the village, however, were threatened by this new visitor. Jealous of his popularity, they secretly poisoned him. To cover their tracks and stave off the suspicion of the people, they had a picture of the Fire-Maker commissioned and built a memorial to the Fire-Maker’s life and achievements. They had all of the Fire-Maker’s words and actions collected in a book and enshrined the Fire-Maker’s tools in a decorative box.
For generations thereafter, the picture and book were revered; the temple was expanded; the tools for making fire were ferociously guarded; and the the Fire-Maker could only be spoken of in the most reverential way. But there was no fire. Ritual? Yes. Remembrance? Yes. Veneration? Yes. But there was no fire.
How many radical, status quo-breaking prophets have been likewise disempowered, bullied, squelched, or outright assassinated by actions so brilliantly put to story by DeMello? Gandhi. King. Romero. Starovoytova. Lincoln. Jesus of Nazareth. The list is as long as human history, and the pattern is always the same. A controversial figure – driven by principled and necessary change – either by chance, providence, or intention launches a movement. The establishment cannot allow the reformer to thrive, for his or her success is an open condemnation on the existing state of affairs. Thus, the Fire-Maker is either directly eliminated by the powers-that-be, or a blind eye is turned as others take care of the dirty work.
When people rise up in protest, the martyr’s “blood crying out from the ground,” those in charge appropriate the reformer for their own use. Monuments are built. Highways are renamed. Parks are dedicated. Speeches of remembrance are given. And the very ones who killed the Fire-Maker eventually honor him or her, in an attempt to tame the movement, an effort to extinguish the fire.
But in the ashes a spark always remains. Always. Gandhi’s efforts at nonviolence prevail. Dr. King’s legacy is unequaled. From the grave, from the ashes, Christ rose. Oppressors and tyrants will forever try to douse revolutionary fires, clinging to their fragile hold on power. In the face of this injustice, courageous Fire-Makers with hearts of freedom will continue to rise. As assassinated Mississippian Medgar Evers said, “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.” For that reason alone, the fire will burn.