On Monday, we celebrate the secular Feast of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Pastor and Martyr. Dreamer. Prophet. Like all true prophets however, King found more persecution than honor during his lifetime, at least in his own land. Indeed, his greatest mark of distinction was the absolute courage with which he entered situations of certain harm time and again at great personal cost. Although we know him today as a man of peace, we must note that he was widely condemned by the polite society of his time for provoking violence wherever he took a dignified stand against the social terror of white supremacy. Dr. King constantly put his life on the line without holding back, leading tragically, if inevitably, to his premature death.
King’s dream was a vision of a better world, informed by the Gospel tradition of a radical love that went well beyond issues of race. He was called a socialist for supporting striking sanitation workers and accused of communist sympathies because he criticized the Vietnam War effort. At one point or another, many of his allies in the civil rights movement turned against him for the expansiveness of his concerns. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI described him as an “enemy of the state” and “the most dangerous Negro in America”. We must remember that he, along with others in the movement, were true agitators in every sense: disrupting daily life and profits, getting arrested, and going to jail for civil obedience long before it became fashionable to do so. Today, we rightly call him a hero, but we diminish King’s memory if we imagine that he was always accepted as such during his lifetime.
The dream was important. The dream is important. I can’t believe it still sounds like a dream instead of reality such that even in 2018, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops saw it necessary to issue a pastoral letter condemning the sin of racism. Surely 50 years after King’s assassination, this would have been too obvious to spill ink over? Shamefully not.
Change doesn’t start with a dream, it starts with open eyes. Observations of the world around us clash with intuitions about what it could be, and dreams arise out of that tension and contrast. For a dream to survive though, it must be concretized in action. In this sense, King was a dreamer, insofar as he was also an observer and a change-maker. Because dreaming is only one of the first steps in making a better world.
I dislike thinking of Dr. King primarily as a dreamer because I don’t feel we sufficiently respect dreamers in our culture. Instead, we contrast flighty dreamers and active realists. We forget the power that dreamers had in scripture. Dreamers, and interpreters of dreams, were powerful figures because they announced new realities. Today we instead tend to think of dreams as things that people wake up from once it is time to get to work. One dream-worker carrying on the legacy of Dr. King today is Rev. William Barber II, who, like King, strives to do no less than to love who Jesus loves (hint: that means everybody… especially any individual or group of people you are unsure about right now). To love, to effectively will the true good for each and every, while being mindful that those who suffer structural injustice require special concern in order that we might notice and undo the shackles that bind them.
The Catholic Church uses the term the Option for the Poor and Vulnerable to describe the deliberate attention that we owe to those who are vulnerable and the factors that keep them so. It is an official component of Catholic Social Teaching as upheld by the bishops, and an appropriate topic for reflection as we think both of how far Dr. King and his allies have brought us and also how short we still fall. At the metaphorical and literal level, as long as we feed the poor with table scraps, if anything, from our lavishly set tables and dare to commend ourselves for our generosity, God’s Reign will be foreign to us. Am I willing to risk enough of my own personal security, respectability, or even convenience to claim that I am truly casting my lot with the suffering? Only if they say so.
This week’s “ear candy”, the classic “A Change is Gonna Come” portrays the power of a hoped for dream that will not die in spite of all odds. Nonetheless, aside from the act of proclaiming a dream of change, it takes a plaintive and passive stance. The “brain food” is about a year old and comes to us from the magazine Fortune. The author reminds us, as I have tried to, that Dr. King was more than a dreamer and more than a public speaker. He was a man of courage, the likes of whom we always need.
Ear Candy: “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
Brain Food: “Commentary: MLK Was Killed 50 Years Ago. Did America’s Moral Courage Die With Him?” by Richard J. Reddick
Come back next Saturday for a new post!