The following ran in the Aug. 27, 2013, edition of the Dallas Morning News' Texas Faith blog. Theology professor William Lawrence provided expertise for this story.
August 30, 2013
By William McKenzie
Is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream for America achievable?
At heart, King was a minister, not a politician. He relied upon the Scriptures to inform his views of equality, along with his own experiences. He studied theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as philosopher-leaders like Mahatma Gandhi. And he led interfaith groups on marches, not Republicans or Democrats in their caucuses.
In short, he was more prophetic like Amos or Isaiah than political like JFK or LBJ. The prophets of old presented a vision for their people, whether the people liked it or not.
Similarly, King presented a vision, a modern one where he imagined “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
But is that dream realistic? Are we too constrained by our own natures to realize that kind of harmony?
In Time this month, author Jon Meacham hints at this dilemma when he writes:
“The death of Jim Crow is an epic story, but it is no fairy tale, for the half-century since the 1963 March on Washington has surely taught us that while African Americans are largely living happier lives, no one can sensibly say that everyone is living happily ever after. The dream of which King spoke was less a dream to bring about on this side of paradise than a prophetic vision to be approximated, for King’s understanding of equality and brotherhood was much likelier to be realized in the kingdom of God than in any mortal realm.In Washington to demand legislative action, King spoke as a minister of the Lord, invoking the meaning of Sermon on the Mount in a city more often interested in the mechanics of the Senate.”...
WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
If Dr. King’s dream for America is not achievable, then we have a lot of changes to make in our habits and customs as Americans. For one thing, we will need to advise school children and their teachers to quit saying the “Pledge of Allegiance.” There will be no point in declaring our loyalty to a principle that this is “one nation, under God,” for example, if we prefer to think of ourselves as an America that is shattered and separated into pieces by race or culture or class. There will be no point in pledging fealty to a republic and its flag if “liberty and justice” are for some rather than “for all.” We will have to remove the original Declaration of Independence from its protected, light-controlled, and climate controlled enclosure in the nation’s capital. Tourists should not be permitted to visit something that looks like a shrine with a sacred text if, indeed, we understand such phrases as “all men are created equal” to be vain and meaningless assertions.
If Dr. King’s dream for America is not achievable, then we also have a lot of changes to make in our religious ways. It must be remembered that Dr. King was both an ordained Baptist preacher and a scholar who earned an academic doctorate at Boston University. Unless we deem his dream to be a prophetic vision that is spiritually compelling, it is simply a fraudulent rhetorical exercise. But if we hear his dream as a prophecy that America will become what America promised at its founding to be, then his words become a compelling challenge to achieve what we have always said we were expecting of our noblest efforts.
There are lesser forces in this nation than the power of his dream. They can impede our progress to fulfilling Dr. King’s vision, but they cannot overcome it. Prophets do not actually predict the future. Rather, they see beyond the normal vision with which most of us are equipped, and they let us know what is coming to be even though we cannot recognize that is is headed our way. Dr. King was simply giving us a chance to make liberty and justice real for all Americans. Fifty years ago, too few Americans were ready. Some unleashed fire hoses and snarling dogs with gnashing teeth upon our fellow citizens in an effort to destroy the dream. But such efforts at destruction never succeed. No one can stop what a prophet has envisioned and has shared with the world.
Dr. King’s dream is more than achievable. It is inevitable....