I woke up on Monday thinking about this Martin Luther King Holiday and realized that I hadn’t seen one place where the “I Have A Dream” speech had been quoted or written about. But it was early in the day and there was still time for what seemed to be a yearly ritual if nothing else. I wondered how Rev. King, would think we are actually doing on embodying that dream as we begin a new decade? My first thought was one of deep discouragement as we seem to have taken steps backward; things actually seem worse today than they were even a decade ago. But I wondered, was I being overly critical of our country? Maybe I should take a second look; this country has come miles from where it was when Dr. King made that famous speech in 1963. So much has changed and it is important to celebrate that things are not what they used to be.
But that doesn’t let us off the hook; we have miles to go. I suspect that in 1990, no one thought our country would be more divided by race in 2020 than it has been in recent history. Or is it? Maybe it is just more honest. I actually believe that the stark divisions, the ugliness, has been there all along and permission has been given to have it on full display. And you know what? Maybe that’s a good thing. Because it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the first step in making change is awareness; we will never change what we don’t see or what we deny even exists. And right now, it’s pretty hard to deny that racial polarization exists in his country. There are differences of opinions about why and how to address the divisions but there can’t be any denying that they are there. That band aid has been ripped off.
As people of faith, it’s important to remember that “the dream” is more than just a feel-good speech that gets rolled out every January, but one that calls us out of our comfort zone to ask questions about justice and equity. Remember Dr. King was a faith leader, a preacher, a pastor calling his country to make change for those who were oppressed and marginalized. At the time that was primarily African Americans and poor people and today would also include all black and brown people, immigrants, lgbtq persons and all marginalized people While today he is framed as a much revered and respected leader, he was not popular among many. And even today we don’t hear a lot of pastors quoting his letter from the Birmingham Jail where pastors are called out for their inaction, indeed their refusal to stand for justice.
So where are we on “the dream” today? Everyone has to decide that for themselves. I believe that there is an unnamed and undefined coalition that is committed to the vision of Dr. King; “the dream” if you will. But they are pushing all of us to a deeper level; one that looks at systemic issues of justice in our country realizing that band aids and approaches of the past are insufficient; we have to go deeper. Dr. King’s dream can never truly flourish until together we find ways to create a more just system from one that is built on the premise of white supremacy. So we see more truth telling and calling people and institutions out in ways that are uncomfortable and that to some offensive. White privilege; this is a term that many white liberals find offensive as it is difficult to own that they who are on the right side of justice could possibly have “privilege”. This work is harder because it’s deeper; its more that having people of color in our churches is about transformation and sharing power and owning and naming things that are really, really hard. And yes it may require what feels like steps back before we can take more steps forward, truth telling sometimes requires that as we realize that we’ve been telling ourselves only part of the story.
You know, I’m not sure my children will see the substantive change I long for, maybe their children will or their children’s children. But; I am a person of faith; so I hope and have faith that Dr. Kings dream is still alive and someday will live with very deep roots.