As an activist, promises were not something he could offer.
Sure, he could encourage students to hold sit-ins with the hope of reversing the inequalities. He could embolden many to march with the longing of rebalanced justice scales. He could even invite the young and old, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics to gather together at the Lincoln Memorial in order to dream with him. And millions did.
But when it came to guarantees, he would tell them:
“There is something inherently unstable about our present circumstances.
They can’t be depended on.
Even if our circumstances happen to be fortunate
we cannot bet on them.
We may abound in the grandeur of riches today
and starve in the clutches of poverty tomorrow.
We may be elevated to the throne of popularity today
and dropped in the abyss of obscurity tomorrow.
We may be at the pinnacle of good health this week
and in a few weeks sink to the nadir of bad health.”
As an activist, he could proclaim not a single promise.
But as a pastor he could.
That is how Martin Luther King saw himself. First and foremost a pastor, not primarily a civil rights leader.
To him, changes to the laws wouldn’t be enough, if changes weren’t also made within each of us. Giving freedom to the oppressed would liberate a great many lives; giving freedom to oppressed souls would liberate every single life. The elimination of discrimination would only last as long as the elimination of fear and hatred from our hearts.
In the words of another pastor, “He wasn’t merely interested in transforming laws, but in redeeming lives.”
Reverend King offered up God’s promises and
“proclaim[ed] God’s Son, Jesus Christ, to be the hope of men [and women] in all of their complex” circumstances.
But not all people then or now agree with where MLK based his hope. In the same way he anticipated pushback to his dreams of equality and justice, he also anticipated pushback to his hope in Jesus Christ.
To his listeners who believed it was better to hope in progress, he told them:
“There is…a deep longing for the bread of hope. In the early years of this century many people did not hunger for this bread. The days of the first telephones, automobiles, and airplanes gave them a radiant optimism. They worshipped at the shrine of inevitable progress.”
In the early years of this, the 21st century, are we any different? We still put our hope for perfection in progress: “There’s no denying that 2017 was a really tough year… but it also delivered some amazing moments of hope and progress.” tweeted Bill Gates in December 2017.
Indeed, progress has diminished the time it takes to travel, communicate, build, migrate, grow, tear down, heal, send, learn, process, immigrate, destroy, and harvest. But greed, exploitation, and deception still lurk in every industry and every community. Another twenty-one centuries of progress will not change our fundamentally flawed hearts.
Reverend King therefore cautions us against putting our hope in human progress and advancement:
“[People] believed that every new scientific achievement lifted man to higher levels of perfection. But then a series of tragic developments, revealing the selfishness and corruption of man, illustrated with frightening clarity the truth of Lord Acton’s dictum, ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'”
So if progress isn’t the thing in which we should hope, what about science? After all, we’re in the midst of a technological revolution. Pastor King anticipated this too:
“[W]e have in the past turned to science for help…
On so many occasions science has saved us.
When we were in the midnight of physical limitation and material inconvenience,
science lifted us to the bright morning of physical and material comfort.
When we were in the midnight of crippling ignorance and superstition,
science brought us to the daybreak of the free and open mind.
When we were in the midnight of dread plagues and diseases,
science…ushered in the bright day of physical health…
But alas science cannot now rescue us,
for even the scientist is lost in the terrible midnight of our age.
Indeed, science gave us the very instruments that threaten to bring universal suicide.”
The scientists in Iran and North Korea today are proof that what MLK said in this sermon has not changed in 55 years. Whether a country has one nuclear weapon or 7,260 of them, science has not brought us closer to peace, but closer to universal suicide.
Could we put our hope in moral humanity instead? Could everyone agree to freedom of expression based on a set of morals. Tell the truth. Be tolerant. Treat others as you wish to be treated. The spread of good moral principles is something we can base our hope on, right?
The Baptist Reverend says not so fast:
“It is…midnight within the moral order. At midnight colors lose their distinctiveness and become a sullen shade of grey. Moral principles have lost their distinctiveness…Right and wrong are relative to likes and dislikes and the customs of a particular community. We have unconsciously applied Einstein’s theory of relativity, which properly described the physical universe, to the moral and ethical realm.”
“The Darwinian concept of the survival of the fittest has been substituted by a philosophy of the survival of the slickest.”
And the result of humanity’s ethnical relativism is “a world gone mad with arms buildups, chauvinistic passions, and imperialistic exploitation.”
Where does this leave us, pastor?
“For so many people, young and old, the light of hope went out, and they roamed wearily in the dark chambers of pessimism…there is the deep longing for the bread of love. Everybody wishes to love and be loved…Much has happened in the modern world to make man[kind] feel that they do not belong. Living in a world which has become oppressively impersonal, many of us have come to feel that we are little more than numbers.”
Like numbers that we let reflect our worth. Someone’s 24th friend on Facebook. The 10th person to leave a comment. Order 32 at the deli counter. A tweet’s 27th retweeter.
So if we cannot hope in science or progress, sit-ins or protests, or a set of moral principles because they leave us detached and discouraged, then “O my Lord, O my Lord, what shall I do?”
We still need something to give us hope, whether in 1963 or 2017.
“[E]ven in the inevitable moments when all seems hopeless, men know that without hope they cannot really live.” – MLK
“Hope is like the sun. If you only believe it when you see it you’ll never make it through the night.” – Commander Leia in “The Last Jedi” movie
So when it’s night, believe in the bright Morning Star.
That is what Martin Luther King would tell us.
When you are “perplexed by the uncertainties of life, confused by daily disappointments, and disillusioned by the ambiguities of history,” believe in the I AM. Only “God has the power to bring good out of evil.”
When you need hope that “this earthly life is merely an embryonic prelude to a new awakening,” believe in Jesus Christ. Only He has done battle with death and come out alive.
When you long for a promise that “the contradictions of life are neither final nor ultimate” and “that all things work together for good”, believe in God’s Son. Only He can promise that “the most starless midnight may herald the dawn of some great fulfillment.”
At the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Dr. King spoke as both an activist and a pastor when he told the crowds “I have a dream…”
He inspired them with his hopes that one day this nation would…
“…live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
“…sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
“…be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
“…not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
“…join hands…as sisters and brothers.”
But that wasn’t the end of his dream. In fact, these aspects of his dream could never be realized in full without one final piece of his dream.
The Reverend King saved the sweetest part of his dream for the end when he quoted from Isaiah 40:
“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.”
Amen and amen.
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