I had originally intended to preach about Celtic Christianity this morning; however, events dictate another focus. Friday was the 57th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, speech at the “March on Washington;” the speech was given in 1963, August 28th. That dream of which Dr. King spoke is still a dream.
During the speech, Dr. King wove references to the US Constitution, Scripture and the challenges facing black people in the US. He said that black people had been given a bad cheque. He kept a positive note and told people to go back to their homes with hope, but the story goes that the speech wasn’t hitting the right notes, so to speak; and so, a little more than ½ way through, Mahalia Jackson, the great Gospel singer, told Dr. King to tell them about the dream. “Tell them about the dream,” she said.
There’s some discrepancy as to whether he actually heard Mahalia, or maybe it was subconscious, but Dr. King changed his focus and went off-script. For the last part of his speech, he started several paragraphs with, “I have a dream.”
The famous quote is the one about his children, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” He finished that powerful speech with the words, “And when this happens,” he was on a roll now, “and 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 people and white people, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” (I changed men to people.)
What was it that Jesus said? “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. For what will it profit you if you gain the whole world but lose your life?”
It’s been 57 years since that speech by Dr. King. Many are wondering about what has changed. Many are saying that while laws have changed, the ways in which those laws are enforced have not changed. Many are saying that Dr. King’s dream is dying. And while many organizations have appointed or elected racialized people into positions of leadership—our own United Church of Canada with the appointment of the Rev. Michael Blair as our new General Secretary included—not enough organizations have.
From what I’ve read in the last few days, though, words of challenge and hope from many leaders, Dr. King’s dream is still alive. Friday’s march on Washington to remember the one 57 years ago shows the dream is still alive. Professional athletes and entertainment figures have boycotted events and spoken out to say that the dream is still alive. Politicians have spoken out to say the dream is still alive. People in private conversations or in online conversations have said that the dream is still alive. Ordinary people are saying enough is enough; the dream is still alive.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the former basketball great started playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, which started the pro athlete protest and boycott last week; Abdul-Jabbar ended his career as a LA Laker. Recently, he’s become an outspoken critic of societies that discriminate based on race. He wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian Thursday or Friday entitled, “Hope is a dying ember for black people in the US. Athletes have rekindled it.”
Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech was about a dream, but it was also about hope. Abdul-Jabbar contrasted his own boycott of the 1968 Olympics because of racial inequality and how ostracized he was for it with today’s professional athletes who have a lot of influence to create change in our societies. Abdul-Jabbar quoted Lebron James, another great basketball player still playing, and a LA Laker, “I know people get tired of hearing me say it, but we are scared as black people in America. Black men, black women, black kids, we are terrified.” Abdul-Jabbar said that as much as white people may be tired of hearing it, black people are tired of living it. It may be a small thing for athletes to forfeit a small amount of their pay, but symbolically it was huge for Abdul-Jabbar and others—it was a statement. It rekindled hope.
What Dr. King implied, what Jesus lived and what Adbul-Jabbar also stated is that for hope to be real, it requires of us intentional work and sacrifice. We have to be willing to give something; we have to risk speaking up. We must risk standing against a growing alt-right narrative that wants to exclude and ostracize, often using violence to do so. We must be willing to do the personal work as well as the societal work that examines how we behave ourselves within the larger society. We have to be willing to have the hard conversations about privilege. We must be willing to listen and examine our language. We are called to deny self and to link arms together to stand tall in the face of hate and injustice.
And in terms of the Jacob Blake shooting and the Black Lives Matter movement, when I think of Jesus’ call us to set aside our desires, our wants and our own set of biases, that’s the denying ourselves bit; seeing the greater good of justice, harmony and hope and doing something about that, that’s the carrying our crosses part. So many people in so many walks of life—sports figures, entertainment figures, politicians, ordinary people—are speaking out about racial profiling and systemic racism. Many others are risking their livelihoods and their lives to keep the dream alive.
Certainly, Dr. King paid the ultimate sacrifice. But like many people who have stood firm and stared injustice down and been killed for it, their deaths keep the dream alive. I remember someone once saying that a hero is someone who’s hungry enough, cold enough, despairing enough, hurt enough, angry enough to do something to change the situation. That’s our call; that’s the call of Jesus in carrying our crosses.
For Jesus’ embodiment of peace, love and justice to be real, that takes all of us working together. The Celts believe that God’s presence was experienced in and through people, in the places where we live and exist, in the poetic words that we share and speak and in the journeys that we take whether that journey is a geographical journey or a journey with others in creating a new beginning. Together, we can fan the ember of hope of which Abdul-Jabbar spoke, make real the dream of which Dr. King spoke, and carry our crosses of love as Jesus invited; we can build a fire that burns our prejudices and biases away and makes us new.