By Robert MacSwain
Last week I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. I did not realize this before I went, but the museum is built around the Lorraine Hotel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot on the evening of April 4, 1968. Hence the museum’s full name is “the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel.” While the building has been restructured and expanded to become a state-of-the art museum and educational center, the exterior balcony where Dr. King was shot, and Room 306 where he was staying, have been maintained as a memorial to him, as a holy place of martyrdom.
Standing outside the museum and looking up at Room 306 on the second-floor balcony, one can read a plaque. In addition to providing Dr. King’s dates and identifying him as the founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the plaque contains a short passage of Scripture. It reads:
“They said, one to another, ‘Behold here cometh the dreamer. Let us slay him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’”
In an inspired bit of appropriation, the plaque thus takes words from our Old Testament lesson this morning, words that Joseph’s murderous brothers spoke about him before seizing him and selling him into slavery, and places those words in the mouths of those who sought and then took Dr. King’s life. And in placing the words of Joseph’s brothers into the mouths of Dr. King’s opponents, the plaque obviously also associates Dr. King with Joseph, with the young boy who dreamed dreams and whose ability to interpret dreams eventually saved the lives of his people. For of course Dr. King’s most famous speech is none other than “I Have a Dream,” delivered on August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the historic March on Washington:
So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of the 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 sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
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. I have a dream today!
That was Dr. King’s dream, and I think we all believe that it was and is God’s dream as well, and so we now recognize Dr. King as not only a martyr but also a prophet. But the question remains: what has become of his dream? What has become of his dream?
I’m sure I am not the only one here this morning who has been deeply distressed by the daily news from Israel, Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, the Ukraine, and on and on and on. It has been an unending litany of bloodshed and brutality. And our own country seems simultaneously gripped by a paralyzing partisanship and trapped by a callous complacency in regard not only to the world around us but in regard to our own overwhelming challenges as well. Why is this? I fear that we are all in grave danger of losing sight of Dr. King’s dream, a dream that would of course be of a world in which not only black and white children in Georgia, but Russian and Ukrainian, Israeli and Palestinian, Sunni and Shiite, native and immigrant, Republican and Democrat, can all sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
Now, you may think that this is a political sermon, but politics is actually the furthest thing from my mind at the moment. Our problem is not political; it is perceptual. The philosopher Austin Farrer once said that 20th-century English philosophy was “not suffering from too much logic but from too little contemplation.” I likewise wish to suggest that we are not suffering from too much politics but from too little vision. That is, we have apparently lost the capacity to see one another as truly human and precious in the eyes of God. We thus need to relearn how to see the world, and one another, properly. That’s where Dr. King’s dream can help us. We need to have our imaginations rebooted. We need new prophets, we need new dreams, we need new visions.
How should we see the world? How should we see one another? In the Gospel lesson, the disciples mistake Jesus for a ghost and are full of fear, and he must reassure them: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Jesus invites us into a relationship with him that banishes fear, a relationship with him that enables us to do things we could not otherwise do, a relationship with him that transforms our heart and in so doing transforms the way we see the world around us and those who inhabit it with us. How should we see the world? How should we see one another? We should see the world as a precious treasure to be enjoyed, inhabited by individuals of infinite worth. In the words of that great 17th-century visionary, priest, and poet Thomas Traherne:
You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in scepters, you never enjoy the world.
… till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own; till you delight in God for being good to all: you never enjoy the world ….
Yet further, you never enjoy the world aright, till you so love the beauty of enjoying it, that you are covetous and earnest to persuade others to enjoy it. And so perfectly hate the abominable corruption of men in despising it, that you had rather suffer the flames of Hell than willingly be guilty of their error. There is so much blindness and ingratitude and damned folly in it. The world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not men disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God. It is more to man since he is fallen than it was before. It is the place of Angels and the Gate of Heaven. When Jacob waked out of his dream, he said “God is here, and I wist it not. How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the House of God, and the Gate of Heaven.”
The Rev. Dr. Robert MacSwain is assistant professor of theology and Christian ethics at the School of Theology, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.