It was one of the biggest speeches of his career, and he knew it. Martin Luther King Jr. was already widely recognized as the spiritual leader of the American civil rights movement. The podium set up in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, would be his bully-est pulpit ever.
Dr. King’s riff on the phrase, “I have a dream,” has truly gone down in history. The most famous of those improvised lines is this: “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.”
If you have any doubt that this was a deeply religious address (a sermon, really) – or that the civil rights movement was a deeply Christian movement – then just listen to where Dr. King went, a few lines later: “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.”
Those are the words of the prophet Isaiah. Dr. King continued: “This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
After the speech, William Sullivan, head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division, wrote a memo to Director J. Edgar Hoover: “In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulders above all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.”
He was a dreamer, Dr. King. And, as a dreamer, things did not go well for him. Then, as now, dreamers make the powers that be – the powers that fear change – deeply uncomfortable. Visionary leaders do not fear to dream of a better tomorrow for all God’s children. As a consequence, those who fear change sometimes do desperate things to try to bury the dream.
For a biblical illustration of the power of dreams and a person who was known as a dreamer, turn to Joseph in Genesis 37. He’s the son of Jacob and Rachel.
Joseph has not only one dream, but several, and they extend over a lifetime. His early dreams foreshadowed a time when his family would bow to him. It was a dream he was not afraid to share with his 11 brothers. It was a dream that predicts he will not only rule over them one day, but will also save them. His brothers respond: “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams” (Genesis 37:20).
Joseph’s brothers think better of those words. In the end, they don’t kill him. But they do throw him down a cistern, then sell him into slavery, and finally stain his coat of many colors with the blood of a slain animal so the heartbroken Jacob will believe a wild beast has killed him.
Of course, we know how the story turns out. Through a series of amazing adventures, Joseph ends up in Egypt – in prison. Even there, his dreams portend a future time of both plenty and famine. Eventually, Joseph is released from prison and is elevated to an administrative position in the government and soon is running the entire country as Pharaoh’s chief of staff. In a time of terrible famine, the sons of Jacob come and grovel before this Egyptian bureaucrat, begging for food so they will not starve (thus fulfilling the very dream they’d found so offensive).
Only then does this mighty Egyptian official reveal his true identity. He’s their brother Joseph, who has every right to exact a terrible revenge upon them, but whose heart has only forgiveness for these who have so grievously wronged him.
Joseph was not a complainer; he was a dreamer.
Reflecting on Dr. King’s speech, Jim Wallis of Washington, D.C.’s Sojourners Community makes this same point about complaining. Looking at the speech, he has observed that something’s missing from it. It’s the phrase, “I have a complaint.” Wallis continues: “There was much to complain about for black Americans, and there is much to complain about today for many in this nation. But King taught us that our complaints or critiques, or even our dissent, will never be the foundation of social movements that change the world – but dreams always will. Just saying what is wrong will never be enough to change the world. You have to lift up a vision of what is right.”
Could there be a better lesson for us to teach our children? We need to teach them to dream, and to dream big, as Dr. King and so many other great prophets have. We need to teach them to dream of justice for all God’s children. We need to teach them to dream not so much the American Dream of individual achievement – although that’s a beautiful thing – but to dream God’s dream for the human race, a dream of a world made new through the grace, mercy and resurrection power of Jesus Christ.
It’s a dream expressed by the apostle Paul, who writes to the Corinthians: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (1 Corinthians 5:17).
We need more dreamers like that today. We don’t need complainers. There are plenty of those already. There’s a whole culture of complaint that threatens to drown us all in its bitter swill.
Think of the last social gathering you attended of people who know each other fairly well, but not too well – the sort of informal gathering that takes place at an office water cooler, in the stands at a Little League game or in the supermarket line. It’s a fair bet that part of that conversation included complaints. Maybe the complaints were about something trivial and transitory – the boss’s unreasonable demands, the call of an umpire, the length of a checkout line. Or, maybe they were about larger matters: an entire political party, the editorial position of a TV news network or the way our economy continues to squeeze the middle class.
Once, at a national meeting of college student-services professionals, a distinguished dean of students was leading a workshop, talking of things he’d learned on the job. He was remarking on the fact that, wherever you go in American higher education, there’s one gripe you’re certain to hear from the student body. It’s about the food in the dining hall.
As a man whose job it was to make the life of students more comfortable, the dean shared how, over the years, he had convened many university committees to improve the quality of dining-hall food. Those committees polled the student body to find out what they wanted, then made improvements. The food just got better and better. Yet, over all those years, the dean observed a strange phenomenon: the students never stopped complaining about the food.
“I have a theory of why that is,” he explained to his colleagues. “When a group of students comes together from all over the country, from many different income levels and ethnic backgrounds and religious creeds, who are majoring in everything from poetry to organic chemistry, there’s one topic of common interest any student can raise with any other. It’s sure to get a sympathetic hearing. It’s the subject of how bad the food is in the dining hall.”
The food doesn’t even have to be bad for students to complain about it, he went on. Because it’s not about the food. It’s about the deeply felt human need for community.
A culture of complaint is a quick and dirty way to build community. Anyone who’s ever been to a public hearing – where people from the audience stand up and speak into microphones -knows this. Citizens make strident speeches about everything that’s wrong and needs to be fixed. As they do so, they feel the thrill of people coming together around a common cause. There’s even a kind of euphoria that comes over a crowd: “We’re a good bunch, we are! We’re not going to sit by and let the powers-that-be roll over us. We’ll make some noise. We’ll make them sit up and take notice!”
But, alas, it’s false unity. A sense of unity built on complaint has no staying power. At the end of the day, it fails to satisfy. It only builds negativity, and – when those complained against grow defensive, as eventually they must – it can even lead to open hostility.
No, we don’t need more complainers today. We need dreamers – visionaries who focus not on how bad things are, but on how good they can be. We need dreamers who can outline concrete ways – small, incremental steps – to achieve worthy goals. In a church, a few determined complainers can stir up such contagious unrest that a congregation sinks into a death-spiral. Just one dreamer, though – if that person is determined, persistent and unfailingly gracious about sharing the positive vision – can sow seeds of joyous enthusiasm that will transform and remake community life.
We in the church of Jesus Christ need to be about the business of raising up godly dreamers. For, in these famous words often attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Those who have accomplished such a feat were dreamers, one and all. May we seek out such dreamers wherever we find them – even among our own children. And may we encourage and equip them to pursue that contagious dream of a new creation in Jesus Christ.