Every year Shelley and I attend the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast with some friends. As you might have expected, there was an excitement in the room this year that was unlike anything we’ve witnessed in the past. Tomorrow we will witness what is undoubtedly the most remarkable achievement of King’s dream as America inaugurates its first non-white president. Colin Powell was the keynote speaker of the event and he delivered a moving (and surprisingly humorous) tribute to King while celebrating Obama’s election as a manifestation of King’s dream coming to fruition. When he finished he received a well deserved standing ovation.
I respect Collin Powell a great deal and appreciated most of what he had to say. But as one who has studied King’s speeches and writings a good bit, I couldn’t help but notice a glaring irony that characterized his entire speech. The very fact that this tribute to King, at this turning point in history, was delivered by a four-star military general was ironic. The fact that Powell illustrated King’s call to “service” by praising America’s soldiers was even more ironic. And the fact that Powell claimed America was a great nation on the basis of the greatness of our soldiers throughout our history was, in my opinion, stunningly ironic. For you see, at the heart of everything King stood for was an unqualified conviction that violence can never achieve a good end that endures.
Taking his cue from Jesus and Ghandi, King insisted, over and over again, that lasting justice and peace can only come about when we resolve to love our enemies rather than retaliate against them. In fact, in some of the speeches King gave before demonstrations, he told this audience he didn’t want anyone participating who harbored hatred in their heart toward their oppressors and who were not willing to commit to non-violence, regardless of what may be done to them. In his speeches and writings (e.g. Stride Toward Freedom) he proclaimed that true freedom can only come when the oppressed care as much about freeing their oppressor as they care about freeing themselves from oppression. The only way forward, King rightly saw, was through self-sacrificial love, even toward – especially toward – our enemies.
The heart of King’s dream wasn’t about racial equality. It was about racial equality only because it was first and foremost about a society in which love prevails and that recognizes the insanity of hatred, oppression and violence. And while America has certainly made important strides toward racial equality – as evidenced by Obama’s presidency – it seems to me that we have not progressed one iota toward the ideal of non-violence. If anything, it seems we’ve gone backwards in recent years on this ideal.
What is most concerning, however, is that it seems that even many of King’s most ardent supporters have forgotten the heart of his dream — which perhaps explains how they could invite a four-star military general to deliver King’s tribute and fail to notice the irony of his praising America’s fighters to illustrate King’s teachings about service.
All politics aside, I think everyone should be elated for what Obama’s election means for non-whites and for race relations in America. And we definitely have King to thank for this. But as significant as this is, I don’t think we can claim we’re any closer to realizing the heart of King’s dream than we were when he marched the streets of Birmingham Alabama a half century ago. Indeed, most seem to have forgotten and discarded the heart of King’s dream as an impractical and superfluous aspect of his vision.
Be that as it may, I encourage followers of Jesus not to forget about the heart of King’s dream. For, before the call to loving non-violence was givin by King, it was given and modeled by the King of all Kings. The heart of King’s dream is the heart of the King’s dream and thus must be the heart of our commitment to live in the way of the King.