Good morning. I express my thanks to God for yet another privilege to come to this distinguished pulpit to be with this outstanding “pulpiteer” and all of this history and the hope that this Church represents.
I want you to turn your Bibles to the 37th chapter of Genesis, verses 18–20. “And when they saw him a far off, even before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him. And they said one to another, ‘behold this dreamer cometh’. Come now therefore and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit. And we will say some evil beast have devoured him. And we will see what will become of his dreams.”
The perilous path of dreamers.
Why do dreamers exact such anger and fear and violence?
Why do dreamers face expulsion, isolation, and assassination?
Why Einstein had to leave Germany? Why Mandela spent 27 years in jail? Why the Kennedy’s were killed? Why Dr. King killed? Why the dreamers face such high expulsion rates?
Joseph—the dream seemed to be simple and non-threatening, except he saw his over-worked brothers, his pain and agonized and ailing father, the exploitation of his people, and dreamed of a day when all of them could eat. All of them could have plenty. All of them could have balanced meals and share security. But immediately upon sharing his dream, the most oppressed—his brothers—reacted the most violently. “Let us kill him.”
When dreamers come dreaming these dreams beyond their circumstances they are attacked by the oppressor and the oppressed. Because in time, the oppressor and the oppressed are just one to the other. And when dreamers come to change the paradigm, then the oppressed driven by their fears of change and the uncertainties of it, the oppressed react. And that’s why the children of Israel on the way tend to say, “We do not know what Canaan is. Canaan is just a dream. At least, back in slavery we could eat. At least we knew our way around. Moses, why take us on this dreamy mission of a land of self-determination?”
The oppressed, the poor are upset because they must, through courage, go forward, or wallow in cowardice and stay where they are. But they can never be the same after dreamers dream. The oppressed are upset. Then the oppressor who must share privileges is also upset. So it’s not unlike the dreamer to be undercut and challenged by both the oppressor and oppressed. Because dreamers are not limited to the old paradigm of that relationship.
You’ll hear many people say during the course of the next few days Dr. King said we must judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. That’s a classic example of a text out of context leading to a pretext, or leading to an awful misinterpretation.
The context was that African American children could not go to the Georgia Theme Park except on Mondays. And many traveled from across the state to go to the Big Stone Mountain Theme Park on Monday. If it were raining hard they could not go. If white’s had a special use for it they could not go. And so he said one day they must be judged by their citizenship, by their ticket, by their rights under the law, and thus judged by the content of their character or by their citizenship, not rejected outright because of their skin color.
Why do dreamers die soon?
Content of character, rather than color of skin, is so non-threatening, Dr. King’s enemies used that! That’s used to destroy Affirmative Action. That’s used to deny a balancing of the scales of justice. That’s to deny women and people of color access. It’s content of character rather than color of skin. But the point was that the day on which he gave that speech, he was using a dream to challenge the law, not the law to limit the dream. The day he gave that speech, people of color from Texas across to Florida, up to Southern Maryland, could not use a single public toilet. Men and women of distinction. Thurgood Marshall. If you will, Dr. Benjamin Mays (?) had to go behind trees or cars to relieve their bodies in alleys.
Veterans of foreign wars. My father got off the train in Washington coming home from the Second World War, but going south to Virginia he had to sit behind Nazi prisoners of war because of skin color. My high school class could not take its picture on the lawn of the State Capitol. Dogs could. We could not because the color of skin. Our money would not spend. We could not share our brains, our will to work, our effort, our character, our dreams, our ambitions. So he dreamed, not just of the privatized notion of content of character rather than color of skin—he dreamed of the public policy notion of what would change the law. He used his faith to challenge the law.
We all now celebrate watching the athletic teams during the play off-season, and we see these flares, while and black and brown playing together. And all of this excitement. And almost never a racial incident. In direct contact sport, knocking each other out, drawing blood, people in their fanaticism pulling for their Team A to beat Team B. And they can pull for uniform color rather than skin color. In part, that’s Dr. King’s dream. They can go to the next level of pulling for a team based upon uniform color rather than skin color. You can pull for the Redskins and Tampa, yesterday, based on skin color. But to go to the next levels.
There’s three distinguishing characteristics of these ball players and teams—football, basketball, baseball—whenever the playing field is even and the rules of public and the goals are clear, we can then go to the next level, we can then speak of the ability to run, hit, catch, throw, and not color of skin. But it meant a commitment to a change in the law.
What made Dr. King different?
There are many eloquent preachers. Many theologians, many ethicists. His movement required courage and risk to change the law, to change the conditions of privileges of the powerful and change the options of the locked out. So he did what? He disturbed the comfortable. And he comforted the disturbed because he used his faith to challenge the law. Indeed, he fought for all Americans for equal protection under the law. Because most Americans did not have equal protection under the law.
When the law changes and the field is even, we see some amazing things. I was watching with the President some time ago, Green Bay play Denver in the Super Bowl. And I saw this awesome scene where you had these real genuine authentic, non-philosophical people from Green Bay when no T shirts on, five degrees below zero, cheese hat on their head, drinking beer, having big uniform green and yellow. And these are real serious white people. These are not just kinda Washington. These are serious white people. No pretence about politics or liberalism or nothing. But these whites in Green Bay were pulling for blacks in Green Bay to knock out a white quarter back from Denver. And I saw blacks from Denver, real serious, my brother, the kind of black people with the claw made in Taiwan, real serious, revolutionary types you know, pulling for a white quarterback from Denver to embarrass black backs from Green Bay.
They could do that because in the arena where the playing field had been made even, rules public and goal clear, and all protected under one big tent, we could go to the next level. Blacks had to run 12 yards for a first down and whites had to run 8 because they inherited some yards. We couldn’t have a national football league.
Dr. King led a movement to change the law.
Because of his movement there is today a new South. He bridged Mason and Dixon and pulled down the wall. You could not have had the Dallas Cowboys behind the Cotton Curtain. You could not have had the Houston ????? behind the Cotton Curtain. You could not have had your Metrics (?) behind the Cotton Curtain. They would not have allowed it. You could not have had CNN, and you could not have had the Super Bowl in Miami. You could not have had Disneyland in Florida. And all this whole new America comes from walls down and bridges erected. You could not have had Jimmy Carter, a peanut planter from Plains, Georgia, to become President. Or Bill Clinton from Hope, Arkansas, and Gore—a team both south of the Mason-Dixon to come to Washington—until the walls came down. Until the law was changed.
It takes no effort to dream of content of character over color of skin. It takes courage to change the Public Accommodations Bill, to get the right to vote, to change structures.
Dr. King received his Nobel Peace Prize and came back, and President Johnson gave him a White House reception. And he said, “I thank you very much for the reception, but my people in the South deserve the right to vote.” He said, “I knew you were going to say something like that. And I’m with you, Martin. If it were left to me, I’d give you the right to vote by Executive Order, but I can’t because to get the right to vote, it’s going to change everything in the south and Democrats in the South are not going to support that. And so, I’m with you. And the bad news is I can’t give you the right to vote. Worst news is that the Congress will not, I want to …..they can and won’t, so you can’t get the right to vote.”
He then went to Selma. And the Bible says the people received him gladly. And with the sacrifice of blood—Schwerner, Goodman, Chaney—two Jews, a black and Viola Liuzzo, and churches bombed and dogs biting flesh and the horses kicking people. Through the rush and the blood of it all, and the lives lost, and sacrificed, martyrs. We wrote the Voting Rights Act in blood. It was co-signed. And Mr. Johnson said, “We will lose the South for twenty-five years, but we must say now ’we shall overcome’ together.”
Dr. King would still be around here preaching if he had just dreamed abstract non-threatening, conservative privatized dreams. He changed the law.
He came against the backdrop of his time. When he would come, reporters came and cameras came, of certain anticipation. Something was going to happen. Because it was always a call to action, a challenge, a threat to the status quo, to Pharaoh, to Nebuchadnezzar, to George Wallace, to Bull Connor—challenging some present powerful oppressive force.
What’s the challenge of our day? What would he be doing today, as I am often asked?
I was privileged January 15, 1968, to spend Dr. King’s last birthday with him in Atlanta. We did not know it would be his last birthday alive on earth. I find how he spent his own birthday to be instructive for all of us. At morning around 8 o-clock he had breakfast at home with his family, around 8 o-clock. We talked by phone. Around ten, he came to the church in his work clothes, dungarees and windbreaker jacket. They had blacks from Marks, Mississippi. Al Lowenstein’s and Jewish allies from New York, to labor workers, some whites from Appalachia, some Chavez farmworkers from South Texas and from Galexico, California. And there we sat on his birthday trying to figure out how to organize a Poor Peoples’ Campaign, on a job, income, and healthcare for every American. Some had come by mule train. Some had come down the highways marching. Some by airplane. Some by car. We would all converge to say to Washington we are able to wipe out hunger without wiping out the hungry. We are able to provide healthcare for every America. That was his dream. A way to upset the Government. And set the Government up to do the right thing.
Around noontime, Norman Clayton, one of his friends came in and brought in a cake and some punch. We stopped and laughed and had some celebration. And it was his birthday. From two o-clock till around five he resumed, he began to talk about how they end the war in Vietnam, how to shift resources back from the war on Vietnam to War on Poverty, how to stop killed abroad and start healing at home. He spent his own birthday at home with family, in church organizing how to change the country, how to end the War, how to revive resources. It was a day of call to action and motivation, not just a call to ceremony.
This past week we spent time on Wall Street in New York, and last night in Decatur, Illinois. Decatur, on the one extreme, that we must provide a floor beneath which no one would fall. Wall Street, remove roofs or walls that separate people from achieving according to their own ability. Remove, establish scores for the locked out and remove barriers for those who can go higher because they are more able.
Why reach back to Decatur? Children who are troubled. Because we are called to have dirty hands and clean hearts, rather than clean hands and dirty hearts. We’re called to reach out to those backs are against the wall. Why must we reach out to those whose backs are against that wall today? There are too many Americans in jail as of February 14th. We’re 5% of the population. 500,000 more than China. Why must we reach out? Because African Americans are 12% of the population and 55% of the jail population. We don’t commit half the crimes! Why must we reach out? Because in 1980 the Federal Education Budget was $28 billion and now it’s $16. The prison budget was $8; now it’s $20. First class jail, second class schools. What should we be doing today? Shall we reclaim or shall we reject our children?
We’ve underestimated, and I close this kind of anti-civil rights movement: Lock them up. Throw them away. Do not tolerate them. Don’t take time to love them. Take psychologists, psychiatrists, take truant officers out of schools, bring police in, we can handle them.
Jesus heard one day a woman being killed, an act of capital punishment. And he heard her screaming as the rocks hit her, and he said, “Jesus, you don’t know what happened, you don’t know what happened? She’s a prostitute. She’s a whore.” “What happened?” “We caught her in the act of prostitution and she broke the religious and the civil law. We caught her. And we have zero tolerance.” He said, “Wait. Wait. I know she’s wrong, but if you caught her, but you can’t prosecute by herself. Where’s her partner? And by the way, you’re throwing rocks. It’s an all-male jury. What did she do?” “Well, she prostituted.” “Well, she’s an attractive young woman. Are there any among you who have not had sex with her, or would you could have, or tried to, throw a rock.” And no rocks moved! He then said to her, “Now you sin no more and go in peace.” He said, “What you did was wrong, but proportionately, it should not be capital punishment. It shouldn’t be death.” Zero tolerance. Where does grace and mercy into zero? Where does forgiveness of sins fit into zero?”
Actually, this idea of dreaming. I shared this with Pastor (?) not long ago. We forget how unpopular Dr. King had become at the time of his death. Enough of that marching. Tired of that marching. Time to move from protest to politics. Enough of that marching. Time for us to be Democrats again. Enough of that stuff. Now let’s go on back and be practical again. He never chose being practical over dreaming of a new and better day. Dreaming.
Joseph, coming across the field, his brothers—they never challenged Pharaoh who was oppressing them. They wanted to kill their brother for imagining a new and better day. The idea of dreams having the power to change things! Dreaming.
Don’t need money to dream. Don’t need a gun to dream. Just a capacity to let your spirits soar and imagine the ought-ness and not the is-ness of life. Dreaming.
John was in the midst of scorpions. On the Isle of Patmos. And the Bible says