Fixin to March: Normal No More
This coming week marks the 50th anniversary of the historic “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. standing before the Lincoln Memorial, delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. This event will be commemorated with more marches, more speakers, more new and deepening relationships, and hopefully a renewed sense of commitment to the ongoing struggle for peace and justice in our world. My husband and I plan to be part of it. I am looking forward to it. But I have to share with you, dear reader, that I am conflicted about it.
You see, ever since the morning I was sent home early from my all white grade school because people feared “what would happen” because this great man had been assassinated, I have been hearing many versions of “the dream” and not all of them ring true.
Just last week, I chose Jeremiah 23:23-29 as my preaching text. Verse five reads “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” See, apparently this “I have a dream” phrase has been used before and apparently false prophets use it too. How are we to know when what we are hearing is truly a word from God and when it is not? The answer is not easy. None of the Hebrew prophets brought messages of pure hope that were easy to hear. God doesn’t need to send prophets for the “feel good” messages. We get those. It’s when the truth is hard to hear, when it contains a message of judgment or condemnation, that the people turn away and God sends prophets to try, one more time, to tell them the difficult, yet saving, truth.
King was no different. Did you know that the original name of this speech was not “I Have a Dream.” It was “Normalcy No More.” Can you imagine a national holiday celebrating “normalcy no more?” I can’t. We like normalcy. In fact, we like it so much we have normalized King by revising, diluting and dismissing almost everything he had to say.
Every year, for at least one day, we all listen to snippets from this speech like “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” Isn’t that nice? Don’t you just love it? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to believe, now that we have a black president and everything, that this “post-racial dream” had been realized and all that was left was for us to hold hands and feel good about “how far we have come?” Me too. That would be a lovely normalcy.
But what about other parts of the speech? You know, the parts we don’t hear quoted quite so much like ” “In a sense we have come to cash a check… It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note… Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
In this era of mass incarceration of black and brown people, racial profiling by police, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and the ongoing, oh so NORMAL racial disparities in economics, jobs, education and health care can we really claim this promissory note is now “paid in full?”
And what about King’s criticism of US militarism, and the call to faith leaders to oppose unjust wars? Consider these words from his “Beyond Vietnam” speech: “surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent.” That was the “first time in history” American leaders opposed unjust wars. Was it the last? Did we continue to speak up about subsequent US led invasions of other nations, or did we return to the NORMALCY of the “smooth patriotism” that is so much easier to proclaim in churches where the American flag flies right next to the pulpit?
And, speaking of normal, how about our economic system? In the same “Beyond Vietnam” speech, King told us that “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” In this era of the 99 versus the 1, when corporations have more rights as legal *persons* than most persons, and laws like “stand your ground” prioritize property over human life, do we really dare celebrate “King’s dream?”
OK, so maybe, as a self-proclaimed progressive faith leader I am on the good side of this, right? Surely King loved us liberal preachers, especially us anti-racist white allies, right? It would be a normal assumption to make. Even if we often have to tailor our message so as not to offend, still, we are NORMALLY the good guys and gals. Except, as it often happens in biblical interpretation, expectations of normalcy often crash when they hit the actual text. In this case, the actual text is “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in which King wrote ” First, 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.” See my problem?
It’s like going to church and claiming to “follow Jesus.” I do love Jesus and I know Jesus is Lord. But I have read the book. It has a cross in it. There’s a price to be paid and a sacrifice to be made and I don’t kid myself. I may end up with the normalcy of Peter who, when faced with real danger, said “I never knew him” not the prophetic, life giving and ultimately resurrecting dream of Jesus. I just don’t know.
But something inside of me and, hopefully, something inside of you keeps speaking. The Dream, the real one, was the right dream. King did not get there with us. We may not all get there together. But, over that mountain of normalized evil, there still is a Promised Land. Even people like me who don’t know if we have what it takes to make it to the end, can at least take a step.
I am fixin to march. How about you?