The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is being remembered today – on this, the national holiday that bears his name – and among his many gifts that I hope to lift up today, that of ‘truth-teller’ is one of the big ones. In a day when thirty-year-old men stalking teenage girls isn’t sexual abuse, where racism isn’t racism, and where a sitting president of the United States makes an average of 5.6 “false statements” a day, it would do us well to remember the power of telling the truth – of standing up when others want to silence you. These are the thoughts I share with you, our readers, this week – and I hope they give you some comfort and fire in these days of ours. Please read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven gives a dramatic description of a dreamer—
Deep into the darkness peering, long
I stood there, wondering, fearing
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal
Dared to dream before.
Mortals we are, and dreamers we are encouraged to be; but to what end? Hear a story about a dreamer from Genesis 37:
Now Joseph had a dream…. [He said to his brothers] behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and lo, my sheaf arose and stood upright; and behold your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said t him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to have dominion over us? So they hated him yet more for his dreams and his words….
Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And his father said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them…Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring me word again…So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them…They saw him afar off, …They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us him.
The writer of Genesis beautifully describes the relationship between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph is destined to play a special role in God’s history. When he shares his dream with his brothers, they are outraged and he is condemned. Mortals we are, and dreamers we are encouraged to be, but to what end?
The prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures were sometimes dreamers. Indeed, they were also proclaimers of God’s word and truth. It is a rare moment when forces in history press together causing a person who is both dreamer of diving dreams and proclaimer of divine truth to emerge as leader. Such persons are of a holy substance; we call them “persons of all seasons.” I believe that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was such a person—He was a “person of his time” who spoke to the immediate issues of the 1960s and a “person for all seasons” who spoke in such a way that his words ring true today and will continue to ring true in the future because he taught us about human relationships, and God’s love. He taught us about humanity’s death wish and our desire to pursue war-making instead of peace-making.
Both of today’s scripture lessons provide a launching pad for reflection on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In Isaiah 62 the prophet proclaims boldly the coming day of Zion, which will be signaled by Zion receiving a new name. The prophet declares, “I will not keep silent; I will not rest” until that day comes. “I will not keep silent,” the prophet cries out “until Zion is given a new name—a name that will reveal that a transformation has taken place between god and the people of Zion. Until a spirit of wholeness—shalom is with the people.” Zion will no longer be called Forsaken and the land no longer called Desolate. The prophet declares God shall name you, and you will be called: “My delight is in her”; you, O Zion shall be called, “the Lord delights in you.” God shall rejoice over you. “I will not be silent,” says the prophet “until the salvation of Zion is at hand.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. like Isaiah of long ago cried out, “I will not be silent.” Born the grandson of a sharecropper and the son of a pastor who lived in America’s south, Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up under the Jim Crow system (the separation of races). He thought that he would like to be a lawyer when he grew up in order to help change the south’s unjust laws. However, he changed his mind when he went away to Morehouse College, and met two ministers who showed him that ministry could and should address things like segregation, hunger, and social sickness.
King went to Crozer Seminary and after graduation became the pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955 something happened in Montgomery that changed King’s entire life. An African American woman, Rosa Parks, taking a bus home from work was seated just behind the “white section” on a bus. By law, whites sat up front, blacks in the back. Several white people go on the bus. There were no more seats for them in the “white” section. So the bus driver ordered Mrs. Parks, and three other blacks to give up their seats. The three other blacks obeyed the driver. Mrs. Parks said, “No.” Simply put Rosa Parks’ demonstrated “outrageous, audacious, bodacious and courageous behavior for a Black woman of her day.
She spoke truth to power; she gave voice to the voiceless.
Rosa Parks was arrested immediately and the news of her arrest spread quickly. A meeting was quickly called to organize a protest and Martin Luther King was chosen as the leader. He did not want the job but he said, “History has thrust something on me which I cannot turn away.” Like the Old Testament prophet Isaiah proclaimed that Zion would have new name in recognition of its transformation, King likewise proclaimed that America would reveal a transformation within the people and within the infrastructure of our society. The new name for America came to him in a dream. He said, “I say to you today, my friends, 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 [and women] are created equal.”
The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. still have tremendous impact on us even today, but as the Genesis story of Joseph and his brothers illustrates dreamers and proclaimers of God’s truth suffer.
We all know that Jesus lived the life of a servant. He suffered and God was glorified. It was as though Jesus proclaimed through is life and ministry, the same words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, “I will not be silent. I will bring glory to my God.” The New Testament lesson tells of Jesus’ first miracle—turning water into wine at a wedding celebration in the city of Cana. Since this is the first miracle where Jesus reveals himself as having power over nature, his act rings out: “I will not be silent. I am the son of the Most Holy God.”
This act is not a miracle to amaze; instead it is a sign where God is revealed to a few people. In fact, Jesus manifests his glory to those who already believe—his disciples. This miracle of Jesus turning water into wine is such a simple act—an act where god is revealed and honored.
As I reflect upon the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. there must have been so many events that seemed like miracles to him. Events that gave assurance that God was present; assurance that made him continue to proclaim, “I will not be silent.”
King’s commitment to non-violence began when he read a composition by Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau believed that a person had the right to disobey any law that was evil or unjust. Once Thoreau would not pay his taxes as a protest against slavery and he was put in jail. A friend came to visit him and asked, “Why are you in jail?” Thoreau responded, “Why are your out of jail?’
King was also greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. In the effort to win freedom from British rule, Gandhi told his followers to meet hate with love; to win freedom there must be suffering, “Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom” Gandhi told his followers, “But it must be our blood.”
King’s use of Gandhi’s technique also meant that he was following the way of Jesus Christ. King told the people: “love rather than hate.” Be ready to suffer violence but do not react in violence.” When King took his movement to Birmingham, Alabama, where Bull Connor and the toughest code of segregation existed—nonviolent resistance as a strategy got tested. The police used clubs and police dogs.
I heard Andrew Young tell about the march in Birmingham at the Riverside Church in New York City. He said: “Then Connor ordered his men to turn on the powerful fire hoses. But the marchers were not afraid. Slowly we began to move forward. The police couldn’t believe it. They fell back without turning on the hoses. The marchers passed them unharmed. It was as though God had once again parted the Red Sea.”
As the sign of Cana was performed without very many people’s knowledge, so this event took place without very many people acknowledging it as God’s work. The first miracle at Cana caused the disciples to have faith in Jesus; likewise, the miracle at Birmingham caused the marchers to have faith that with God on their side, and with King’s leadership grounded in God’s love, their lives would be transformed. Many people heard King but did not recognize that God was working through him. It was God who gave King the dreams and the courage to declare that his dreams could become reality. King would not keep silent as long as injustice afflicted the human family. He taught us that equality is essential to all members of the human family and that peace is the harmony of our dreams and our reality, which is the essence of shalom, or wholeness.
Mortals we are and dreamers we are encouraged to be; but to what end? Here comes the dreamer. Come now let us kill him. The assassin’s bullet that killed King in 1968 stilled the voice of truth but not the truth itself. Like any prophet sent by God, King said things that many did not, and still do not, want to hear. As Christians we are called to live the fullness of the gospel for the entire world. The following words from King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam” challenge us as a people of faith to live the fullness of the gospel. As we hear these words let us reflect upon those places in the world where people are suffering, suffering especially because of war:
Now let us begin. Now let us re-dedicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the children of God, and our brothers and sisters wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the focus of American life militates against their arrival as full women and men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is our, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
The proclamation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday as a national holiday is a challenge to us all as we reflect on our contemporary Christian journey.
King had a dream.
Will you share it?
He had a dream.
Will you live it?
Dr. Linda E. Thomas has engaged students, scholars and communities as a scholar for thirty-one years. She studies, researches, writes, speaks and teaches about the intersection and mutual influence of culture and religion. Her work is rooted intransitively in a Womanist perspective. An ordained Methodist pastor for 35 years with a Ph.D. in Anthropology from The American University in Washington D.C. and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Dr. Thomas’s work has taken her to South Africa, Peru, Cuba and Russia. She has been recognized as an Association of Theological Schools Faculty Fellow as well as a Pew Charitable Trust Scholar.