Emory Report
January 22, 2008
Volume 60, Number 16

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January 22, 2008
Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.

Noel Leo Erskine, associate professor of theology and ethics, is author of “King Among the Theologians.” His remarks about Martin Luther King Jr. most recently appeared in a book/CD set, “Voices: Reflections on an American Icon Through Words and Song.”

At the Democratic primary held in New Hampshire, Sen. Hillary Clinton claimed that Sen. Barack Obama made too much of words, because he calls on his audiences to hope for and to dream a new America. She observed that Obama, who is skilled in the art of rhetoric, was influencing and inspiring his audiences with speeches, and that people should note that words and speeches are inadequate tools for change. Words should give way to deeds, Clinton argued, as the test of words is their capacity to be transformative.

In responding to Clinton, Obama appealed to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and noted how impoverished the human family would be without the inspiration and vision that words engender. He suggested that words are the tools with which King fashioned a new world.

Of course, what neither senator noted is that for King, to hope or to dream was not a theoretical postulate unrelated to the world in which people struggle for meaning, but hoping and dreaming were metaphors signaling the divine presence accompanying persons in their struggle to change the world. King’s confidence of the divine presence in the midst of a community struggling and agitating for change allowed him to conjoin word and deed, theory and practice.

This conversation between the senators reminds me that 2008 is very significant in reflection on the life and thought of Martin Luther King Jr. This year the world celebrates his 79th birthday, and as one who lives and works in Atlanta, I am very proud that his first steps and words were in this city that “is too busy to hate.” Further, April 4 will be the 40th anniversary of his assassination, and later Aug. 28, the 45th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Because this literary gem has influenced so many persons, long before Obama’s “Audacity of Hope,” I would like to suggest in the context of a new year that there are three steps I plan to take in reflection on, and in celebration of, the 45th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

My first commitment is to dare to dream a new world. King suggests that a part of what it means to be human is to dream, and he was not thinking of night dreams but day dreams. According to King, dreams are the stuff of which we are made.

I dream of a world in which poverty will be eliminated. I dream of the day when every home in the world will have access to clean water. This means a willingness to share resources in a more equitable way. It has been pointed out that although the United States comprises about 6 percent of the world’s population, we consume more than 40 percent of the world’s resources.

One way in which we could translate dream into a new reality in which there would be less famished children is to link the dream of a new world to justice-making. If I may paraphrase Clinton’s question: How are dreams translated to changed circumstances for the poor?

One aspect of the answer is to link dream of a new world to justice-making on behalf of the poor. King states: “Now is the time to make real the promises of [economic] democracy; now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice; now is the time to lift the nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood; now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” The dream of a new world must be linked to justice-making for all of God’s children.

My second commitment is to dream a new church. Like Martin Luther King Jr. I am a son of the church and serve as theologian and pastor within the church. During the early 1980s I had the pleasure of team-teaching a course at the Candler School of Theology on King’s theology with Coretta Scott King. Occasionally, students would write papers on King as philosopher or on King as theologian, and invariably Coretta would point out that King was first and foremost a minister of the church.

In his “Letter From the Birmingham City Jail,” King beckons the community to join him in dreaming a new church: “I must honestly reiterate that I have been so greatly disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of the negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say it as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom. . . . In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

King beckons us to dream a new church in which divisions of race, class and gender make room for a new humanity. King expected the church to model the joining of hope and justice-making, dream and reality, thus enabling the church to represent sacred space in which all God’s children are celebrated.

My third commitment is to invite you to dare to dream a new you and for me to dream a new me. A new self that is open to dreams of brotherhood and sisterhood. One of the themes that runs through King’s speeches is: “ I cannot be all that I can be until you are all that you can be. And you cannot be all that you can be, until I am all that I can be.” We are fashioned “in a single garment of destiny.” We belong to the family of God.

Elsewhere I have said of my mentor and teacher: “King was always concerned about those who were excluded from the table of brotherhood and sisterhood. It did not matter if they were young, old or on the margins of society. His passion was to bring all people together in a symphony of love. He referred to this coming together of all of God’s children as reconciliation. Reconciliation was the main key in which his advocacy for excluded persons was set. He understood the love of God as the power of reconciliation that unites races and fractured communities.”

Let the celebration begin.