Fifty years after the death of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., there is still value in reflecting upon his dream. That dream was perhaps expressed most memorably in his speech during the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” on August 28, 1963. To several hundred thousand gathered at the Lincoln Memorial (and to President Kennedy watching the live television broadcast), Dr. King shared his hopeful vision of justice and equality in our land. It was a defining moment of the civil rights movement. It was also an address steeped in Biblical language that directs us to consider the implications of the Kingdom of God for church and culture.
In its historical context of long-standing discrimination and simmering racial tension, Dr. King’s vision was bold and filled with hope:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
King set his plea in the context of American history, appealing to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. But he drew on more than our nation’s political heritage in his oratory. The third generation Baptist minister found words in Scripture, especially the prophetic tradition, to express both discontent with present injustice and hope for better things to come. King echoed Amos, declaring, “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (cf. Amos 5:24). And he drew from Isaiah 40:4-5 to express his vision in Biblical terms:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with…. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
Martin Luther King’s dream was truly one of Biblical proportions.
Over 1900 years before Dr. King’s speech, Luke the evangelist quoted the same verses from Isaiah 40 when introducing John the Baptizer (Luke 3:4-6). He understood John as paving the way for Jesus to come and fulfill prophecy, and he tells us that Jesus himself quoted Isaiah when reading aloud in the synagogue at Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me … to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19, NKJV).
Throughout his gospel, Luke shows Jesus’ special concern for the poor and the oppressed. In accord with the ancient prophetic vision, Jesus was ushering in a Kingdom that would be marked by justice and righteousness. And all in that Kingdom are called to love their neighbors and pursue such justice.
Dr. King’s dream is rooted in Scriptural promise that ultimately will only be fulfilled in the Kingdom of God, but that doesn’t mean Christians are exempt from pursuing that dream now. In Jesus, the Kingdom of God broke into history and is now growing toward fulfillment. We are called to embrace a Kingdom vision now and to live by Kingdom values now – the kind of values that promote equality, racial harmony, and care for the downtrodden. The world should be able to look at the church and see it leading the way in matters of racial harmony and social justice. Within the church, King’s dream of racial reconciliation and equal treatment should be a present reality because that is what Jesus’ Kingdom demands. And as more and more hearts and minds are changed by the gospel, we should see Kingdom values increasingly infusing our culture and showing the power of Christ to accomplish what worldly politics has failed to achieve.
Thankfully, we have made positive strides as a nation in the direction of realizing Dr. King’s dream. The two terms served by an African-American man in the White House are proof of that. But only someone whose eyes are blinded to reality would think that we’ve fully achieved a “beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” The vestiges of racism linger, even sometimes within the church. There is still a long way to go. Perhaps the anniversary of Dr. King’s death can be a time when we, as Christians, reflect upon the call of the Kingdom of God on our lives and commit ourselves afresh to working to make the Biblical dream come true.
In a recent sermon entitled “Unity in the Church”, I quoted from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic treatment of that theme in his book, Life Together. That volume grew out of Bonhoeffer’s experiment in Christian community with his seminary students in Finkenwalde in the 1930’s, but he says in its preface that the pursuit of Christian community is “a responsibility to be undertaken by the church as a whole.” It is in that spirit that I reflect upon some of Bonhoeffer’s observations that are worthy of consideration and application in our day (and in our congregation).
The Apostle Paul asserts that spiritual unity is a God-given reality:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)
It is important to remember that the heart of Christian community can never be found in human endeavor. As Bonhoeffer notes, “Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” The call to community is not a call to create something out of whole cloth. It is a call to live in light of God’s revelation of what He has already accomplished for us through Christ. That is not going to be easy. We are a bunch of sinners. We will need large doses of humility, gentleness, longsuffering, and forbearance in love if such unity in community is to become an ever-growing reality.
In affirming God’s ideal for the church, we will have to let our own ideal views die away. The fact is that each of us has our own view of what the ideal church would look like. My ideal is not the same as yours. That is why Bonhoeffer gave very good advice when he wrote:
Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become the destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.
If you hold back from full commitment to this local body because it isn’t perfect according to your standards, then you damage the body. You bring disunity, rather than unity. God in His good providence has placed you in this place with these people and called you to live in light of your calling to make the unity of the church manifest . That means you’re going to have to try to love the person you don’t always like. It means you’re going to have to deny yourself in the interests of others. It means we’ll all have to look at ourselves less and our Lord more.
Let me close with another challenging statement by Bonhoeffer:
I have community with others and will continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more everything else between us will recede, and the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is alive between us.
May such Christ-centered unity in community become a hallmark of Covenant Presbyterian Church in ever-deepening reality. Such community will be a beautiful witness in a fractured world.
In 2011, Covenant Presbyterian Church partnered with Immanuel Fellowship Church Kalamazoo, Mich., and First Baptist Church Hermanville, Miss., to provide a week of Vacation Bible school to the children in Hermanville, Miss., at First Baptist Church. Every second week in June, a team from Covenant and Immanuel travel to stay at a host church in Port Gibson, Miss.
Monday begins the week of VBS. Our day begins at 8:30 and ends at 2:30. We sing, and study the Bible together, have crafts and play a lot of games. The children’s ages attending range from 3 yrs old – high school. We have seen growth each year, not only in numbers (120 children) but in curiosity about the Bible and the gospel message.
We have experienced the importance of partnering with other churches. Each year, we are excited to see the children and church members from First Baptist. As we have grown in our relationships with the people in Hermanville, we also began a cookout at the church on Wednesday evening to invite the Hermanville community. This has also been a great opportunity to connect with members of the community. We maintain communication with the children throughout the year by sending a quarterly newsletter to First Baptist to distribute.
One other part of our outreach is a construction crew that works on homes in Hermanville as designated by the local outreach group, Christian Volunteer Services.