Pastor King / MLK Connects. [More than Ever]

There’s this part of the 1963 I Have a Dream speech where Pastor King rolls into a lilting, homiletical refrain: “I have a dream…” He talks about a dream that “one day” his “four little children will live in a nation where they are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He finishes some of these refrains with biblical precision, tying ideas together by bookending phrases with “I have a dream today.”

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Pastor King’s roots in the Baptist church become so apparent as his speaking verges on a kind of improvised singing. It’s not quite singing per se, but it’s certainly not mere speaking either. A few churches still exist that hold the “whooping” tradition as dear, and for that I’m thankful; it stirs the soul to hear the artistic convergence of Pastor King’s incarnational faith and political passion. The I Have a Dream speech is equal parts biblical homily and civic prophecy.

Appropriately, he closes with an old Negro spiritual:

“Free at last, free at last; thank God almighty, I’m free at last!”

As an American, I have been moved by the life, testimony, and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. During a turbulent political season, I am reminded why his contributions are so enduringly significant.

Pastor King’s speech continues a legacy that reaches back into the Bible’s Old Testament and forward into the now and even, I think, into the future of our world as we move deeper into the 21st century. His imagination was shaped by the likes of the prophet Amos, who confronted unjust rulers on their tax codes and court systems, calling for justice in unapologetically poetic fashion.

Another Jewish man, Jesus, who I believe to also be the Son of God, was the absolute height of the biblical prophetic tradition. He spoke truth to power in his Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew chapters 5-7. Instead of merely prohibiting murder, Jesus [God’s Son] explains how God is even interested in our innermost attitudes toward one another. It’s not just about getting along! It’s about honoring one another deeply and from the heart.

This kind of religion gets to our motivations, to our core identity, reaching right into our attitudes toward one another.

In the recent political season, we are reminded that hateful words and actions are as common as the air we breathe. Politicians, pundits, reporters, and casual social media users seem freer than ever to let their opinions fly.

I came across an example of such vitriolic anger when I read a “comic” on Instagram related to the Black Lives Matter movement. It featured comic versions of various events specific to the movement such as brick throwing, cop shooting, and Trump voter assault.

I replied to the man who posted it, asking him to consider taking it down. First, he said a rude version of “no.” When I warned him that I might report him to Instagram, he told me off again, taking me as a religious nut of some kind. It was something along the lines of, “go read your f*****g Bible you [oblique gay reference].” I hadn’t mentioned anything about my faith or religious convictions, but I guess he was right about how this was my motivation.

Racism is alive, friends, along with the ravaging attitudes and predispositions that it carries with it, and it’s much closer to all of us than we sometimes realize. It’s on social media, on the lips of people around us, in quiet corners of the internet, in politics. But most jarringly, it’s often occupying space in the hiddenness of our hearts.

The smallness of my recent brush with racism paves a way for us to consider folks who are truly hurting. Blacks, the working poor, Muslims stuck in airports, religious minorities, marginalized groups of every kind. Surely you have heard the stories, as have I, and I pray we not only hear but also listen.

Back to Pastor King.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in line with not only the explicitly biblical tradition, but also in line with the trajectory we all follow if we take the time to listen to the voice of God speaking to us within our souls [the Holy Spirit, to use biblical terms]. If we all search ourselves, quiet ourselves, then listen and imagine with our God-given imagination, we all yearn in our own way for a world that is free from hateful speech and violent actions. If we continue to listen, we learn that we are called to, in the words of Jesus, love our neighbor-and even our enemies. And in so doing, we love God, for every person bears God’s image.

I speak from a position of much privilege as I relay these ideas, and I acknowledge this freely. I was born into a ethnic group, nation, and individual family that received an enormous amount of vocational, educational, personal, and economic opportunity in large part because of injustices. Tracing the exact details is difficult, but our privilege comes from African Americans, Native Americans, and even to a far lesser degree from certain groups of European Americans.

As I write, I can almost hear the pushback: “but Ben, all of that is in the past!” “Come on Ben, none of that was your fault!” “Ben, guilt isn’t getting us anywhere!” Well, I get it. Yes, the systems preexisted us. But once we learn about the power of the systems, we are confronted with the choice of either perpetuating their heinous power or taking steps toward freedom. For our privileged selves this may mean leveraging our positions of power and influence and even our circles of friends and family to help one another know about said privilege.

Pastor King’s legacy helps impel even privileged imaginations to see a world free from the racism, bigotry, sexism, and prejudice that pervades every facet of life, from our personal conversations to our civic discourse.

Speaking alongside the law, the prophets, and also along the trajectory of the New Testament’s Christocentric pathway, Pastor King shows us what it means to be free:

Free.

Free to love;

Free to forgive;

Free to extend grace;

Free to heal divisions;

Free to practice generosity;

Free to exist as we were created to be.

And in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

“Free at last, free at last; thank God almighty, I’m free at last!”

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