I’ve been reading a lot about and from Martin Luther King, Jr., these days. Below is a reflection I wrote after reading his sermon titled, “Chrismas Sermon on Peace.” — Nathan
I, like many people, love King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I enjoy reading the transcription of it; I enjoy hearing its original delivery; I usually even enjoy when someone tries to recite it from memory (though I’ve heard some pretty awful renderings by black politicians). I like that speech and am glad to know it.
However, I think that in addition to hearing “I Have a Dream” each January, we should also hear this sermon. I say that because in this sermon King talks about how and when the dream King expressed in his “I Have a Dream” speech turned to a nightmare. I don’t want to come across as a downer, but the sermon and the presence of violent racism need to be held before people unless we believe somehow that King’s dream came true. It did not yet come true.
King writes that the first time he witnessed the dream turn to a nightmare was when white racists bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama during Sunday school on September 15, 1963. This was less than one month after the “I Have a Dream” speech. Four black children were killed that morning. Astonishingly, not one member of Birmingham’s white community attended the funeral services.
King watched the dream turn into a nightmare as he saw African Americans in northern ghettos “perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” (257) while the nation did nothing to rescue them. Moreover, King said he watched the dream turn to a nightmare as he watched his people “in the midst of anger and understandable outrage, in the midst of their hurt, in the midst of their disappointment, turn to misguided riots to try to solve that problem” (257). Finally, King saw his dream turn to a nightmare as he watched the escalation of the war in Vietnam, where the war on poverty was shot down on every battlefield.
King was increasingly troubled to figure out how to remain faithful to God’s call in the face of the myriad ways that his dream for America and the world became a nightmare. One of the ways was to hang onto to the essence of life, which for King was life’s interrelatedness. “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality” (254). King then illustrates this point with a beautiful sequence detailing how our common morning process means using materials from throughout the world. South Americans provide our coffee; French provide our soap; English provide our toast; West Africans our cocoa, and so on. Ultimately we will not have peace until “we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality” (254).
A second key to remaining faithful, as it was a key to realizing peace on earth, was embracing “the nonviolent affirmation that ends and means must cohere” (254). Here King presses the case for nonviolent action leading to peace and violent action not. King speaks about the contradictions of dropping bombs in the name of peace. Means are the seed and the end is the tree, so one cannot hope to receive a good end with a bad means. Peace is not merely the end goal; it is also the means by which peace is achieved. To find peaceful ends, we must pursue it by peaceful means. King concludes this section by writing, “All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends” (255).
One of the mind expanding concepts in this sermon is introduced when King says that he has “seen too much hate to want to hate” (256). King names some on whose faces he has seen hate, and states that each times he sees hate he realizes more and more the weight hate is to carry around. Here King weaves his Gandhian philosophy when he encourages his audience to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. (256).
This is an amazing concept not least because it runs counter to our instincts. Even if we do not seek to harm others, our basic instinct for survival is to protect ourselves and those we love.
King weaves the influence of Thoreau on his thinking when he states that “ We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you” (256). As I have suggested elsewhere, this, stated another way, suggests that for me to be silent in the face of any oppression, mine or another’s, is as bad as causing the oppression. Oppressing others runs contrary to my belief of Jesus as liberator. So, finally, my silence jeopardizes my Christianity. The truth of this concept bothers me because there are issues now about which I am being silent or at least barely audible. They may not be as plain as was American racial segregation in King’s day, but that does not make them any less important, nor does excuse my silence.
On second thought, maybe this sermon should not be read every January. It might bother us too much.