On December 24, 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. entered the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Though no one realized it at the time, it would be the last Christmas Eve sermon he would preach. Just over three months later, he would be dead—another prophet murdered by those who believed that killing the dreamer would kill the dream.
His sermon that night echoed the famous words he spoke during the March on Washington. “I still have a dream.” Dr. King identified the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” as the interlocking realities that violate God’s intention and deny the image of God within the human family. His dream pointed to the day when the triplets are overcome and transformed. It contained a vision of racial justice and equality, expressed a vision of poverty overcome and people working and fed, and looked toward the day when peace would reign around the world.
The dream had been tempered since 1963. Indeed, the Rev. King had seen it turn into a nightmare on various occasions and various ways. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham claimed the lives of four little girls and scared souls and psyches across the country. The poverty of the African-American community in the midst of America’s prosperity haunted Dr. King. The inability of the country to address effectively that poverty further tested the dream, as did the riots to which people resorted in response to the poverty. The escalating war in Vietnam—a war that consumed lives and resources and placed America on the “wrong side of a world revolution”—was yet another nightmare that challenged the Rev. King.
But after all of that, in spite of all of that, Dr. King affirmed again and again, “I still have a dream.” These are not the words of the false prophets who proclaim peace when it is clear peace is lacking. They are the words of a man who has faced hate and horror, violence and injustice and who refuses to allow them to have the final word. They are the words of a man who sees beyond what is to another reality. He knows the worst, and still he says, “I have a dream.”
How can he say that? He can because in the end, it is not his dream. It is not the Rev. King’s dream. The dream belongs to God. Dr. King is the prophet who has been grasped by God’s vision and who can do no other than to articulate that vision and live that vision.
Listen to how he expresses the dream:
“I still have a dream today that one day war will come to an end, that men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, that nations will no longer rise up against nations, neither will they study war any more. I still have a dream today that one day the lamb and the lion will lie down together and [all] will sit under [their] own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. I still have a dream today that one day every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill will be made low, the rough places will be made smooth and the crooked places straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Grasped by God’s vision, the Rev. King persevered. He stands in that long line of God’s servants who faced the worst life could bring with a full awareness of how bad that worst could be and who continued to follow Jesus Christ, proclaim good news, live for peace, and work for justice.
We can join that number. We too live in troubled, troubling times. We have come a significant way on the journey to racial justice. A long way remains ahead of us.
The deaths of black and brown people at the hands of the police and the failure of the justice system to indict officers lead many to affirm that #BlackLivesMatter. Racism remains embedded in the structures and systems of our society as revealed in much of the rhetoric, and in some cases the behavior, related to the debate over immigration policy. The U.S. imprisons people of color, particularly men, at an alarming rate leading Michelle Alexander to describe this mass incarceration as The New Jim Crow.
Economic disparities persist. The gap between rich and poor is growing. The economic divide between whites and people of color, particularly when measured in terms of wealth, remains wide.
Some thirty armed conflicts are taking place around the world. The United States has troops involved in a number of the conflicts.Groups and individuals turn to terror and violence to enforce their view and to seize resources. Resources that could provide health care, support schools, rebuild infrastructure, and more are spent on war and making weapons for war.
And still with Martin, we can dream. For the dream was not Martin’s. It is not ours. The dream is God’s. And God’s dream is more real than all the reality we daily experience. God’s dream sustains us. God’s dream challenges us. God’s dream invites us out of ourselves, out of cynicism, out of pain, out of systemic injustice. God’s dream asks us to believe, to follow, and to live toward that “day when there will be peace on earth and good will toward [all]. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the [children] of God will shout for joy.”
Dream on! And live toward the dream.