First preached at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square on 1/19/2020.
Relevant lectionary readings here.
“They said to one another, ‘Behold, here comes that master dreamer. Come now, let us slay him… and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’”
A version of these words of foreboding is inscribed on a memorial at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4th over 50 years ago. This week we remember his life by commemorating his birthday in both the Christian and secular realms.
These words from Genesis were chosen, no doubt, because of the powerful allusion to MLK’s iconic, “I Have a Dream” speech where he famous spoke in 1963 in front of the Lincoln Memorial to over 200,000 marchers, saying:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together
But in a nation that likes to pretend that white supremacy died right along with MLK, that often claims that racism is over, that it’s all in the past, these words from Genesis are a challenge to all of us. What will become of Martin’s dreams?
The original dreamer in our Genesis reading is Joseph. Joseph was special. Out of the 12 sons and 1 daughter, Joseph was his father Jacob’s very favorite. And his brothers knew it. Their father didn’t keep it a secret by any means, he gave Joseph a flashy fancy garment to wear as a gift. And then Joseph started having these strange dreams.
In one of the dreams, Joseph and his brothers were binding up grain in the field. And all of a sudden, Joseph’s bundle stood upright and his brothers’ bundles stood upright too, and all of his brothers’ bundles started bowing to Joseph’s bundle. And in another dream, the sun and the moon and 11 stars…just like his 11 brothers…they were bowing down to Joseph, too.
As you can imagine, these dreams did not go over well with his brothers and they began to conspire against him. First they decided to kill him, but one of the brothers persuaded them to just sell him off to slavery in Egypt instead. But although his jealous brothers had intended to kill him, God intervened to work things out for Joseph’s good. Through a series of events, Joseph became a high ranking official who advised the Pharaoh with his prophetic dreams during times of famine. And lo and behold, one day the famine was so bad that Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to beg for food and, yes, bowed down before Joseph. Just like in his dream.
Being a dreamer and a truth teller came with a lot of risk for both Joseph and Martin and for all of us. It is vulnerable to dream the dreams that people dismiss as impractical or naive. Hoping and believing in a better future is scary. It opens you up to ridicule and humiliation. It opens you up to rejection. And if your dreams are big enough, if what you hope for is outlandish enough, it opens you up to pain and even death.
No one knew this better than Jesus. Jesus had all kinds of outrageous hopes for the coming Reign of Heaven among us. And not only that, he had STRATEGY. Jesus knew so clearly what the future could be like but he also knew how to make it happen. MLK patterned his strategy after Jesus’. It was pure, unrelenting, militant, nonviolent resistance.
I call this strategy militant nonviolent resistance because the powers that be and the state have so often co-opted the word “peace” and watered it down to mean “nice” or “accommodating”. The state wages a particular propaganda campaign by calling anything that disrupts the status quo “violent.” So it is so important for us to do some power analysis and ask ourselves about what counts as violence and who gets to decide. Late stage capitalism’s propaganda teaches us to value property over people. That’s why breaking windows is considered violent in popular imagination but denying people healthcare is not. The state has silently declared a monopoly on violence, and we are so immersed in this dominant narrative that we actually have to be trained to see state violence as real violence. Otherwise we normalize it, it becomes invisible.
MLK also spoke on the way that “peace” is weaponized by the status quo. He talked about the difference between what he called “negative peace,” or an absence of tension and “positive peace which is the presence of justice.” So often those in support of the status quo shame inconveniences, like roads blocked by protestors, by calling them “violent” because they have confused peace with a lack of discomfort. It’s why white supremacy paints the righteous anger of Black people as threatening or non-peaceful – because it’s uncomfortable for white people and discomfort or inconvenience or change don’t fit this watered down idea of “peace.”
But the militant nonviolent strategy that MLK and Jesus employed was not about accommodation or comfort. It was full of disruption and confrontation and challenge. Nonviolence at its core is rooted in love. And sometimes the most loving thing to do is to put up boundaries, to refuse to enable someone in harming others, because when we harm others we do damage to our own souls. For Jesus in his own time, people were forced to choose betweening propping up the Roman Empire for perceived safety or to engage in violent revolutions that were inevitably crushed. So in Matthew 5, Jesus provides us a way to engage that is not merely imitating the very systems we are fighting – like Audre Lorde said, “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house” – so this way is not recreating the systems we are fighting, and it’s not laying down and taking abuse. Jesus outlines instead a third way, a way of resistance that reclaims human dignity and demands accountability. This way is not passive. It is active and courageous and engaged.
In Ferguson during the Uprising protesters used to carry full length mirrors to the riot line. A group of artists even made a coffin out of mirrors to carry to the protests. We used to say that the militarized police force looked like robo-cops. It was dehumanizing for us to be on the receiving side of their violence, but it also quite literally dehumanized them by making them look non-human with their armor and their vests and their shields and their helmets and armored vehicles physically separating them from us. And so we would bring these full length mirrors as a tactic of militant nonviolent resistance, to tell the truth about what they were doing by holding up their reflection. It was uncomfortable. Officers would try to avert their eyes.
This is the key strategy of militant nonviolence. It redistributes tension by taking the risk of telling the truth out loud and in public. It recognizes that the Empire will always out-arm us and outspend us. And so we must outlast them, to be more clever, more creative. This is in some ways more dangerous to the status quo than an armed uprising they can repress and so as the cross and the martyrdom of MLK reminds us, this way is not without risk. But unless we have those big dreams, unless we listen to the dreams of our neighbors, and unless we ACT strategically and creatively to make something become of those dreams, we are going to keep stuck right where we are – captive to sin and death; to racism and militarism, numbing ourselves with materialism to try to escape.
“We shall see what will become of his dreams.”
Scripture tells us that Martin’s dream will one day be a reality. But it is our choice what role we want to play. We can side with Empire, with the status quo. We can value property over people. We can play respectability politics. We can play it safe, having all the right thoughts and beliefs but refusing to put our bodies on the line. Or we can take a risk and choose to be a part of making those dreams come true.