It was 48 years ago this week that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of his most famous speeches on the Mall in Washington D.C. His declaration, “I have a dream” remains one of the most stirring addresses in American history as well as a prophetic discourse opposing injustice and the continued oppression of grandchildren and great grandchildren of slaves.
If Dr. King were to deliver his address again this year, I’m sure he would continue to see the need to speak out against the injustices that continue to oppress many black and other minority communities in the U.S. But I believe that Dr. King might also speak out against the injustices, oppression, and poverty that cause suffering in communities around the world, including the suffering caused by the drought and famine now occurring in East Africa.
In The Hole in Our Gospel, I pieced together a letter that God might write to the church today. In remembrance of Dr. King’s magnificent speech, I’ve taken the liberty to imagine how Dr. King might dream again today and challenge the church to “preach good news to the poor.”
* * *
Two thousand years ago, the greatest human in history, whose spirit indwells us today, announced his mission to a small synagogue in Nazareth. We read those words today in Luke chapter four. “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of the poor and enslaved. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But two millennia later, the poor and oppressed still are not free. Blacks in America are still suffering the consequences of segregation and discrimination. Many in Latin America live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. The poor in Africa are still unable to participate fully in the global economy. The Holy Spirit witnesses today to these shameful conditions.
In a sense, the Holy Spirit is here to cash a check. When Jesus Christ spoke the magnificent words of the prophet Isaiah, he was signing a promissory note to which every Christian was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of the good news offered to the poor: sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of Jubilee.
I fear that the church has defaulted on this promissory note. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, the church often has given the poor and oppressed a bad check, which has come back marked "insufficient funds." We have preached a partial gospel.
But we believe in a God of infinite justice and righteousness. Our Lord has come to cash this check—a check that will provide the widows of the world with the riches of freedom and the security of justice. Now is the time to make real the promises of Luke chapter 4. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of discrimination and oppression and poverty to the sunlit path of racial justice and good news. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.
I say to you today, my friends, I have a dream deeply rooted in Jesus’ mission. I have a dream that one day the Body of Christ will rise up and live out the true meaning of the Gospel: "The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor."
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.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I challenge the church with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will preach the good news to all the world’s poor.
This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "I will tell everyone about your righteousness. All day long I will proclaim your saving power, for I am overwhelmed by how much you have done for me.” (Psalms 71:15)
And when this happens, all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
Given the relevant issues of today, how do you imagine Dr. King's speech would be delivered and spoken if it were given again? How might the church be challenged today to "preach good news to the poor"? Are there points in this speech or in Dr. King's original speech that challenge your faith or worldview?