Shakespeare’s Hamlet wrestles with the reality of the rise of an evil ruler. Haunted by visions, Hamlet feels that he must set things right. “The time is out of joint,” he says. “O cursèd spite, that ever I was born to set it right!”
The times of Martin Luther King Jr. were certainly out of joint as far as civil rights for African Americans were concerned. And Dr. King, among many others, haunted by visions of lynchings, firebombings, water cannons, police dogs, and jailings of peaceful protestors, felt the call to right the disjointed times with a compelling dream of liberty and justice for all.
The “drum major for justice,” as he wanted to be remembered, accepted history’s weight of responsibility for change and pursued a dream of a better future—a future free from the triple evils of racism, war, and poverty.
That dream entered into the American consciousness 55 years ago on August 28, 1963, when more than 200,000 demonstrators took part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the nation’s capital. But it almost didn’t happen. The “dream speech,” which people of all creeds and ethnicities recognize as one of the most memorable and inspiring in American history, wasn’t in King’s notes that day.
King had shared elements of the dream speech in sermons and talks before the Washington March, but for this occasion he opted to go with the “ ‘bad check’ metaphor in one of his drafts, which would support an argument that America had failed to fulfill its promises of liberty and equality to black citizens. He didn’t think he could fit both that and ‘the dream’ refrains into the five minutes allotted to each speaker.”
When King began to speak, he stuck to his prepared text, reminding America of its promissory note guaranteeing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all men—a promissory note it had defaulted on as far as people of color were concerned. As he neared the end of the speech, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was seated within earshot of Dr. King, suddenly shouted, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
It could be argued that without those six words spoken in the hearing of Dr. King as he addressed the crowd that day, the “dream” might never have made it into the American lexicon. King looked out over the crowd. As he later explained in an interview, “All of a sudden this thing came to me that I have used—I’d used many times before, that thing about ‘I have a dream’—and I just felt that I wanted to use it here.” He said, “I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”
With soaring oratory, King painted a picture of the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners sitting down together at the table of brotherhood. He dreamed of a day when little black boys and girls would join hands with little white boys and girls as sisters and brothers.
With all the fire and homiletical passion of the Baptist preacher that he was, King’s call to let freedom ring from “every hill and molehill” transformed the civil rights rally into a revival meeting. King’s dream fueled a movement and pricked the conscience of America. But did it convert the soul of America? More than half a century later, is our nation any closer to making good on its promissory note for freedom? Or is the “Bank of Justice” still in default?
Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the western end of the National Mall in Washington, DC, perhaps even the dreamer never imagined that 46 years later, on the eastern end of that same mall, an African American would stand on the steps of the nation’s capital to be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. For many, the election of Barack Obama represented the realization of the dream. America’s opportunity “check” was finally “cashed.”
Others knew better.
Without question, many strides have been made in the fight for racial equality. As an African American myself, I have benefited from those strides. I recall eating at a restaurant in a southern state while on a business trip in the 1990s and reflecting on the reality that just 30 years earlier I could not have eaten there.
Nevertheless, on the 55th anniversary of the dream speech, the times seem “out of joint” again and more like the 1960s than we care to admit. Rising hate crimes, NFL protests, controversial police shootings, emerging white nationalism, Confederate statue debates, rancorous immigration reform exchanges, Charlottesville, Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, White Lives Matter, and so on are symptoms that the cancer of racism has come out of remission.
Why the relapse? Why hasn’t the dream been fully realized in 55 years? Perhaps it’s because a commandment has never been fully obeyed in 2,000 years. You see, long before King had a dream, the King of kings gave a command: “A new command I give you,” He said, “love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).
Could it be that, as Senator Jeff Flake put it, “Our democracy is more defined by our discord and our dysfunction than by our own values and principles”? Is it because we’ve given lip service to the dream and ignored the commandment? And by “we,” I mean Christians. I mean the church.
During the Birmingham campaign, a few months prior to his dream speech, Dr. King wrote the following words from his Birmingham jail cell: “I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. . . .
“. . . Too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows. . . .
“. . . I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. . . . Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.”
Have the scars of social neglect and prejudice on the body of Christ completely healed? Just days before writing this, a friend sent me a link to an article describing the racist attitudes of a church staff member that were directed toward a white family who had adopted black children. Following is an excerpt from that article:
“ ‘It’s really good that you adopted him,’ the staff member said. ‘Then he won’t be ghetto like other black kids.’
“ ‘Excuse me?’ I replied. . . . I scooped up my son and walked away.
“We were a multiracial family now, white parents raising black children in a white community and a nearly all-white church. We had educated ourselves about race issues, read books, and had personal experiences that showed us how far we are from being a post-racial society. But I never expected our biggest awakening to come from within our church family.
“Hood-wearing, vitriol-spewing racists? Absolutely not. A thousand small comments or assumptions that began to shatter my heart? Painfully, yes. Isn’t it so good we rescued them [our black kids] from a life of inner-city drugs and gangs? The staff member might as well have said, ‘Don’t worry, we won’t ever view your children as (whispers) black in our church.’ ”
As hurtful as this was to read, what pained me even more was a comment someone—a non-Christian—posted in response: “Church goers are racist hypocrites. What a shock!” Believe me, it got worse from there. Much worse. The overwhelming sentiment from other readers about the staff member’s comment was that this behavior shouldn’t come as a shock because it’s been going on, under the guise of godliness, forever.
If only God’s people kept His commandments! Especially the eleventh one of loving one another! “By this,” He said, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Sadly, it seems the church is known for something far different than loving one another. We can and must do better!
The dream tarries because the commandment doesn’t go beyond skin deep. It must go heart deep. The commandment is more than a dream. Love requires more than political correctness; more than tolerance. It requires death to self and submission to yet another command of Christ: “You must be born again” (John 3:7). Love goes beyond surface tokenism and produces a new creation.
“Christianity doesn’t require any power when its only challenge is doing something that already comes naturally,” wrote Spencer Perkins. “But it will take a powerful gospel—a gospel with guts—to enable us to love across all the barriers we erect to edify our own kind and protect us from our insecurities.”
If Martin Luther King felt the “fierce urgency of now,” in 1963, how much more urgent is the need for a gospel of guts today? Will Christians of all ethnicities and political persuasions have the courage to love one another as Christ loved us? Will we all go beyond platitudes and love not “with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18)?
This gospel of guts cuts both ways. Whether black, white, Asian, or Hispanic, if we claim Christ as our King, we have no justification whatsoever for harboring prejudice or malice toward anyone. No one gets a pass when it comes to Christlikeness. To promote hate on the one hand or to retaliate against it with violence on the other is to mock and ultimately deny the One who, though “he was oppressed and afflicted, . . . did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 4:7).
Here are some ways to respond now to the love crisis around us:
1. Confess your own prejudice. Be honest enough with God to admit your biases and insecurities.
2. Seek to understand even before you are understood. Listen, without defensiveness, to people’s stories. Hear their pain without judgment. Lay down your “life” (your viewpoint) for your brothers and sisters, so you can see through their eyes and have compassion.
3. Bless those who curse you. Do not return evil for evil in person or on the Internet. Refuse to be sucked down the rabbit hole of hate when provoked by a post or a tweet.
4. Reject all forms of hate speech. Don’t use slurs yourself, and don’t sanction them by your silence when they are used on others (see Ephesians 4:29).
5. Spend productive time with others of a different ethnic or socioeconomic group.
6. Defend the defenseless. Don’t tolerate injustice toward any group. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
7. Forgive. As Christ forgave you, forgive.
When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, I see a gospel with guts. A “love so amazing, so divine,” in the words of Isaac Watts, “demands my soul, my life, my all.” You and I aren’t sufficient for such things. But God’s grace is sufficient for us.
The dreamer is gone, but the King still lives, and His commandment to love still matters. If we will refuse to be ashamed of a love like this, then we can do more than dream. King concluded his dream speech with this memorable sentiment: “We will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Great God Almighty, we are free at last!’ ”