More thoughts on the “Dream”

Fifty years ago I had what I now know was a conversion experience. It was the summer of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. John F. Kennedy was President, and after passively adopting my father’s odd Republicanism – he was a blue collar railroader, a member of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, thought that FDR had been a disaster and voted straight Republican – I found my political inclinations moving left. It was aesthetic at first. Kennedy was personally attractive, was a decorated war hero, had a beautiful wife and children and his book, Profiles in Courage, about American politicians who had voted their conscience against prevailing public opinion and paid the price, captivated my imagination. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, The Cost of Discipleship, and personal martyrdom had shown me the radical social and political implications of following Jesus Christ in the world. Kennedy’s book was an illustration of Bonhoeffer’s point. He talked about public service in almost religiously vocational terms and articulated a vision of government as a potential instrument for justice and goodness and compassion. To my father’s chagrin I announced that I thought I was now a Democrat.Then came the  March on Washington and King’s speech.

I had been drawn to and compelled by the Civil Rights Movement, newly aware of my  nation’s shameful treatment of its African American citizens, legal segregation in the American south, voting restrictions, unequal education and , in Chicago, massive political and social structures, public housing, for instance, that kept mostly poor African American citizens confined to their ghettoes, sub-standard schools and social services. I listened to advocates in my own church who were calling racism a personal and also a corporate sin and justice and social righteousness God’s priority. I signed up with Civil Rights organizations, took part in a mild demonstration, lost a peach of a job because I would not assure the pulpit committee that I would never get arrested in an act of civil disobedience, and began to address racial injustice as a political and theological, and biblical, issue in my sermons. I was ordained two months before the March on Washington and wanted desperately to go along with a group of young pastors. I was the only one who was married, had two young children and no money for bus fare and meals. I have rued it ever since. But I watched on television and King’s speech that day brought it all together for me. Taylor Branch said the “I Have a Dream” speech made Martin Luther King one of the nation’s Founding Fathers. Jon Meachem agrees in a fine essay in a commemorative issue of TIME magazine.  We know now that the speech was a masterpiece, grounded  in history, social science scripture and theology. In an act of sheer courage, or of spirit filled faith, King left his prepared speech when Mahalia Jackson, standing behind him said, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.” What followed, out of his heart and mind apparently, is both a rhetorical tour de force but also an illustration of the power of the Spirit, particularly to those of us who wouldn’t think of leaving our manuscripts even if Mahalia Jackson told us to. It was, in fact, a Gospel sermon, citing scripture along the way. It convinced me that my Christian faith and intent to follow Jesus Christ led to involvement in the world, not retreat from it, that the quality of life for all people, their equal opportunity, their security and welfare were priorities for the God revealed in the bible and therefore priorities for the church and its mission.Those of us who made that case remember that it was not  always universally applauded, not by a long shot. My father scratched his head, softened his position and stopped calling Martin Luther King an “outside agitator”, probably a communist. Many others did not, accused us of politicizing Christianity,  inappropriately mixing religion and politics, and endangering the financial security of the church. Those accusations hurt, particularly the last one. During the 50th anniversary remembrance of the March and the speech everybody now applauds the Movement and King’s speech. But it wasn’t that way in 1963. Evangelical friends who are now completely on board were either silent about racial justice or opposed to the whole thing as a distraction from the gospel.

Kennedy’s assassination a few months later solidified my new convictions and I watched with profound gratitude, following more demonstrations, police brutality, and more martyrdoms, as the President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Theo Hobson in his recent Christian Century article, “Reviving Liberalism”, differentiates between good liberalism, “affirming a deep affinity between the gospel and political and social liberty”, and bad liberalism “that seeks to reform Christianity in the direction of rationalism and optimism about natural human capacities.”

I became what Hobson calls a good liberal in the summer of 1963. I believed, and continue to believe, that the welfare of all is the shared responsibility of all, that government has a role in protecting the liberty and rights, and guaranteeing the equal treatment, of all its citizens. I still think that government can be a force for good. To that degree, I am a liberal, not in spite of my faith in Jesus Christ but precisely because of it.

Comments

  1. Brilliant. Beautiful.

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