He saw this evidence, as did we all. And yet, he put before us a different kind of vision. It was a vision where we would not judge one another by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. But it is also a vision where we are able to cash even the most notoriously overdue bills for justice. It is a vision where we can imagine justice given to us by the prophet Martin Luther King and echoing other prophets before him.
We also remember that the “I Have a Dream” speech was not the most controversial of his speeches. The most controversial came as he spoke out against the Vietnam war. When he was gunned down, he was supporting garbage workers in Memphis, but also organizing a tent city in Washington DC as part of the Poor People’s Campaign, none of which was particularly glamorous. Justice was his prophetic issue and it was not just racial justice. It was economic justice. It was justice and peace between nations. So when we hear Barack Obama speak, echoing these sentiments, we cannot help but hear the booming and inspiring words of Martin Luther King.
What makes a prophet? Is a prophet someone who predicts the future? Or is a prophet someone who observes the present and tells it like it is. A prophet is someone who often has an uncomfortable word to say. That’s why it’s important to hear the entiretly of Martin Luther King’s 1963 DC speech.
Samuel was that kind of prophet who told it like it is. His mentor Eli was also a prophet who people relied on to tell them the words of God. And yet young Samuel heard the word of God. And the words that Samuel were to impart were words of judgment upon Eli. The scripture says, that God was upset with Eli because the people blasphemed God.
How do we blaspheme God?
We blaspheme God by putting people down.
We blaspheme God by forgetting that all were created in God’s image.
We blaspheme God by favoring rich over poor, one race, gender, or orientation over another.
We blaspheme God by favoring one nation or nationality over another.
We blaspheme God by doing violence to God’s created world and people.
The problem was that Eli did nothing about the blasphemy of the people. He was supposed to be the voice of God and yet he did nothing to stem the tide of idolatry.
Martin Luther King wrote his letter from the Birmingham jail in response to a statement from older whiter clergy that said he was being too uppity and that he ought to slow down his movement. He said,
“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative…
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.
Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
We long for justice as the groundwork, the basis upon which peace is built. And while we are a long way from peace or justice, may we consciously and boldly move in the direction of justice—messy and uncomfortable as it is.
May those of us who have been used to being in power step back for a moment and contemplate the voices too long silenced. May we receive enlightenment that comes when we live God-inspired lives. May we call people out when they blaspheme God and God’s people and God’s creation. May we be worthy of our prophetic challenges and heritage.
We elected Barack Obama in part because within him we heard the prophet’s words. We heard the prophet’s eloquence. We experienced the prophet’s audacity. We imagined and we imagine a nation and a world that embraces peace and justice.
Can a prophet stay prophetic once they are part of the establishment? They can if the establishment changes. But there is something about a prophet that always pushes the edges of acceptability. By definition, they make people in the establishment nervous. We need prophets to help us when we have gotten off on the wrong track. They are the ones who hold a righteous vision for the people and encourage people to get right with God.
And as excited as you and I are that this inspiring man is becoming the 44th president, we need to remember what the church’s role is with this or any governmental institution.
Hear again the words of Martin Luther King:
“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
If we are to be the conscience of the state, we need to celebrate on Tuesday, but we also need to remember the people left outside the fold. We need to support soon-to-be president Obama in his work of bringing peace and justice to a world that has gotten off on the wrong path for way too long. And when the critics launch thinly veiled dismissals based upon his ethnicity, we must raise our voices. We must become intolerant of intolerance.
And yet, when and if there are times when our Christian sensibilities for justice and peace are in conflict with the policies of the Obama administration, then it is our responsibility to hold it accountable. It is our responsibility to be the conscience of the state. We are to be the voice for the voiceless who refuse to be so easily dismissed.
I hope and pray that we will not have to raise our voice in anything but celebration, and yet I am ready to take to the streets when necessary. But for now, for today, for this week, we need to celebrate the fact that we have turned a major corner as a country and as a people. I look forward to seeing the rainbow of people on the mall on Tuesday, many of whom never thought they would find themselves celebrating a dream fulfilled after generations of dreams deferred.
May we live into the dream of justice for all people—not just racial justice, but economic justice, gender justice, gender identity justice, affectional justice, educational justice, employment justice, environmental justice, immigrant justice, peaceful and nonviolent justice.
When we embrace all of that, then we are on the way to living in to our Christian heritage and vision. For we follow one who was a prophet and instilled within us a prophetic calling. May we embrace and celebrate the prophets among us be they in the White house, on the capital steps, in protest of such institutions or in the pews sitting next to us. For it is to us that Jesus came, lived, died and rose in us so that we might proclaim the justice which we celebrate and work for today.
Martin Luther King, like Elijah, like Samuel, like Jesus, paved the way for others who followed him. Barack Obama is one of those followers but so is everyone else who embraces justice. Martin Luther King is Elijah to all of us, like John the Baptist who prepares the way of God. And we join in this Christian work in so much as we imagine justice for all. But don’t stop there. Imagine justice, advocate for justice, demonstrate for justice, implement justice. Be just and compassionate and merciful and prophetic. And God will rejoice and so will al those finally set free of the manacles of despair, cynicism and immobility. And together we put forth a new dream—a dream of justice, which is at the very heart of God and is in the hearts and hands and feet of all who love God. May we continue to dream to work and to celebrate all that is holy, hopeful and life-giving. For this is how the dream lives on.