I found the text of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech today to read to the kids – I hadn’t realized that Isaiah 40’s picture of the fruition of the Kingdom of God is directly quoted. I’ve quoted the “I have a dream” portion of the text below, but wanted to make a few comments:
First, because of the historical context of the speech–desegregation of schools was less than a decade old, and had not been fully implemented in some places, and Jim Crow laws were still on the books in many places, particularly in the Deep South–the speech is oriented as a call to the South to change. While this was appropriate, we need to remember today that this is not a “Southern problem.” As a child of New Englanders raised in Georgia the narrative we tended to use saw the North as “not-racist” and the South as “racist.” There was certainly more “on the books” in the South, and there were bigger hurdles to cross, legally, in the South, but racism is a human problem born of fallen human beings trying to build their identity in their tribe. The reality that we are beings made in God’s image and for His glory is out-of-accord with our experience of suffering and our own causing others to suffer–but to admit the need for something beyond ourselves strikes our pride, so we begin to insert other identities and narratives that make us feel better–like “I’m better than you because I’m racially different from you.” The pastor of our anchor church, Preston Graham at Christ Presbyterian Church, New Haven, had an excellent sermon examining this dynamic yesterday that you can find here.
That human problem–racism–wasn’t and isn’t limited to the South. Northern whites exercised and exercise racist attitudes toward blacks though at a less institutional level than happened in the Jim Crow South. That is not to say that institutional racism did not exist: in our town of Milford, CT, as well as many towns along the Connecticut coast, we used residence-only beach parking permits, or parking permits for non-residents that could only be purchased during limited week-day hours to prevent blacks from New York City from using our beaches. While this could be understood as a residents vs non-residents issue rather than a racial narrative, Edward T. O’Donnell, host of the podcast “In the Past Lane,” makes a good argument for the explicit racial nature of this problem in this interview with Historian Andrew W. Kahrl about his book, Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline.
In our denomination we saw this difficulty during an action at our General Assembly in 2016 to repent of sin in our denomination’s past with regard to the Civil Rights Movement: I heard a number of Southern pastors confess how their churches had hurt African American communities in their cities and how formal, institutional repentance was needed to address that. I also heard several Northern pastors say, essentially, ‘this is something we’ve dealt with or weren’t part of, let’s move on.’ Those of us in Northern churches who are white need to not let Martin Luther King Day be a time when we look south and say “those people did bad things.” We need to examine our own attitudes and look for where we are placing our identity in some form of white tribalism rather than admitting our brokenness and, by the power of Christ in us, repent and embrace our African American brothers and sisters.
The second point I’d like to make has to do with a beautiful book called Grandmama’s Pride by Becky Birtha (illustrated by Colin Bootman). We read it to the kids this morning and it’s a great way of introducing children to Civil Rights history. My two criticisms are that the book focuses on the narrative of racism as a Southern problem (see above), and that the last line of the book is, “Those days are over.” This suggests that the problem the Civil Rights Movement was addressing is essentially solved. It is wonderful and appropriate to celebrate the change that last line specifically refers to: that discrimination can no longer be written into law (separate white and black water fountains, restrooms, waiting rooms; whites only businesses, etc.). That said, we don’t want Martin Luther King Day to be a celebration of what has been accomplished only. There is still much work to do in racial reconciliation. The reality that we are in our essence ‘neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free… but all are one in Christ’ (Galatians 3:28) is a reality that has not been worked out fully in the world yet. Sadly, often the institutional churches themselves have been part of the problem of denying that reality.
I noted that Dr. King cited Isaiah 40’s depiction of the Kingdom of God coming to fruition. The promise of Isaiah 40:4-5 began to be realized in Christ’s entrance into history, death, resurrection and ascension; but it’s a promise that will not be fully realized until He returns. We may take steps, we may make progress; but the problem Dr. King was drawing attention to is deep. It’s not a problem some legislation will do away with. It’s a problem only Christ can fully, fundamentally and finally solve when he comes to make all things new (Revelation 21:5). The problem is as deep as the human heart; and its reality should drive us to deeper dependence on Christ as we surrender more and more of ourselves to Him and as we see more and more fully how much we have to repent of. As we reflect on Martin Luther King Day we don’t want our reflection to only be celebration of what is already accomplished, but a call to engage in the work of racial reconciliation that is still to be accomplished, to acknowledge–and repent of–the depth of the problem that we cannot accomplish on our own, and to long and pray for the day when Christ shall make that dream final, ultimate reality.
An excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech (the speech is 2-3 times longer):
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, 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! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Here’s the whole speech: