Dream deferred

April 9th, 2018

"What happens to a dream deferred?"
— Langston Hughes, "Harlem"

Last week on April 4 tens of thousands commemorated the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Pilgrimages were made to important stations and mile markers that memorialize his heroic work and prophetic witness. Speeches were given. Recitations of his radical theo-political rhetoric were pondered in classrooms and served as lyrics chanted during marches.

On this 50th anniversary of Dr. King's death, there were gatherings committed to the ending of racism, to uplifting poor people, to reclaiming the moral high ground and to inspiring a new generation of activism. Dignitaries, bishops, clerics, politicians, celebrities and persons of every identity and social construct found themselves under some themed banner or canopy; positioned before a stage, podium or balcony and affixed towards hope. A hope given color, shape, sound and name in a dream.

It was truly a day of remembrance and reflection. Prophetic prognosticators past and present waxed eloquently about the parallel between the crucifixion of the King of Jews and assassination of a King’s kid. Witnesses like Jesse Jackson, once young but now old, spoke of the Lorraine Hotel’s balcony with reverence, not unlike onlookers in antiquity at Golgotha.

In the years following King’s demise, Samuel Billy Kyles posited, “Yes, you can kill the dreamer. Absolutely, you can kill the dreamer. But you cannot kill the dream.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. is not the first dreamer whose dreams were ill-received, wrongly interpreted and assumed threatening to those within earshot of its utterance or in the sightline of its aim to upset the social milieu. Scripture highlights this phenomenon in the narrative of Joseph. In Genesis 37, Joseph is graced with dreams. These weren't merely simple thoughts, futuristic illustrations or sensory distortions experienced while sleeping. Neither were they idyllic, inexplicable and unintelligible imaginings.

The dreams discussed in the text are representative of divine imperative and impartation — an unfolding or revealing of God’s self and activity in relation to creation. Joseph's dreams carried both serious commendation and consequence. Dreams when understood as a divine imperative pose not only a personal burden, but often result in existential crisis for oneself and others. Both Joseph and King equally experienced and, over time, reconciled with the weight of such prophetic responsibility.

In the days following the pomp and circumstance, prayer vigils, ecclesial huddling and intellectual romanticizing of the fiftieth year since, will we dare to reimagine our respective praxis of living out the divine imperative — dream — instead of reminiscing and rehearsing its merits and martyr? 

Dreams as divine imperative call us into question and service. Such is the call for all forms of prophetic witness. In this tide following our remembering of Dr. King, we ought to access our own bias, partisan politics, systemic participation and privileged patronage that we often note in others. We must realize that what we think of as “the dream,” may in fact be a nightmare for others.

Ecclesial leaders and bodies that march for the dismantling of racism must strive toward stopping their own role in the dismantling of those same communities via the employment of their respective historical and institutional forms of oppression and manipulation. Lives of all children and people — especially of color, with or without documentation — matter, respective to their right to live safe and have their dignity and sacredness of personhood affirmed. Just governance and equitable economies should no longer be ascribed to periodic tax-cut bonus checks, but rightly appropriated and promised in livable wages, quality education, accessible healthcare and voting rights for all.

Reimagining a practice, or a way of being, purposed toward fulfillment of the dream requires an admission of guilt by this nation, its institutions, our sacred systems and by each of us for every individual toward whom we are all personally inhumane, unjust and unconcerned. The prophetic ethical witness of the eighth century prophets, embodied in the world’s ultimate ethical example —  Jesus Christ — is inherent in King’s philosophies of civil disobedience/nonviolence, and is alive in present-day faith-rooted resistance and responsiveness to injustice. Recognizing that witness not only raises critique, question and commentary before others, but also makes us answerable to those very same interrogatives, expectations and challenges.

Second, each of us must acknowledge that there is an agency greater than ourselves. Authority of such an agency is gifted unconditionally. It is never appropriated based upon ideas of constitutionality or political expediency, rather it is underpinned by every individuals’ unalienable righteousness. Not simply aligned with a nationalistic allegiance, parochial or identity politics; but to humane and morally just claims. 

Lastly, reimagining a practice toward living into the dream is more than a head and heart response. Our efforts and energies must not be exhausted in apologetics, analysis nor endless deliberative discourse. As my wife always asks me, “What are you going to do when you stop talking?” When you stop doing surveys? When you stop taking others on guilt trips to blame and shame one another? When we stop talking about talking about talking about doing something?

The actualization of the dream is rooted in our actions. The dream invites our intentionality to be, expect and imagine by means of doing something; it compels us to act. Hopefully in 50 years we will not ask what King would say, but we will have become the embodiment of the dream — a divine imperative — of love, peace and justice for all.

F. Willis Johnson is the senior minister at Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri. His writing and lecturing credits range from TIME Magazine, National Public Radio, universities and seminaries, to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History Culture. He is the author of Holding Up Your Corner: Talking About Race in Your Community.

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