Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Tyranny of Hope

When most of think about Martin Luther King Jr., we think first of his famous, “I have a dream…” speech delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963. Each of us have surely heard sound bites from that speech, snippets of his words broadcast to inspire us with hope and honor his memory. Growing up we spent one day a year learning about D. King and the hope he had for our nation. Each year, no matter what grade I was in or which teacher I had, I always heard the following words:

“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

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 today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and 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."²

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.”

Despite Dr. King’s prolific writing and numerous speeches given over years of work in the civil rights movement, it is this speech that stands out…and more often than not, this particular section of the speech. While there is no doubt that it is a fine example of the beauty of rhetoric, I am led to wonder why these words. Our nation seemed eager in the wake of his death and the cooling of a decade of violence to remember this particular part of his life and ministry. Why? What is it about the dream and the hope that captured the imagination of our nation?

While it is true that the nature of dreams and future hopes reveals the reality that the work of the civil rights movement is still not complete…not for those of us oppressed by race or class or ability or age or sexual orientation or gender identity or for any other reason… but sometimes I have to wonder if Dr. King’s legacy is only safe when viewed from a distance. Hope allows us to rest in the dream of a new reality without being upset or jostled by any sense of urgency to get there. Like a dream, it offers us a distant vision without the grueling pain of change to make it a reality. Perhaps we are more comfortable with future dreams than present day action.

If we were to hear the entirety of that speech, we would see that for Dr. King this dream and this hope were never meant to be a future utopia. It was a present reality pressing upon the people to take action now.

“We have…come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.”

Why do we remember the dreams of tomorrow over the urgency of today?

The tyranny of hope is that it wraps complacency and apathy in the virtues of patience and tolerance. We must confess that throughout history, it has often been the Church who has used visions of God’s future Commonwealth to stall the hope of liberation for millions of oppressed and enslaved people. We must ask ourselves why in this country slave owners promoted the conversion of their slaves to Christianity? Visions of heaven were used to mask the oppression on earth.

But this is not the true hope of our faith tradition. Millions of people in our own country soon came to recognize that truth and see through the hopeless shams of their masters and pastors to the true hope of liberation that can never be kept bound by the confines of polite religiosity.

Christian hope is not a static, empty, inactive virtue or value. Rather than a polite excuse to accept the status quo for dreams of the sweet by and by, hope is a catalyst for change that gives us the courage to act boldly in the world with the conviction that we are participating in the inevitable, unstoppable vision of God of peace and justice. Throughout history the saints of our faith have been steeled by this hope and spurred into action to claim the promise given to us all by God of a world filled with justice and peace.

Hope is only made real in action when it becomes embodied in the choices we make each and every day about how we will live our lives. Hope is not a value, virtue or ideal. Hope is a concrete way of orienting ourselves and our actions in the world and it happens one day at a time, one moment at a time, one choice at a time.

If we hope, we must surely act.

I invite you and your family, in celebration and honor of Dr. King and the movement for peace and justice, to take the "Family Pledge of Non-Violence" written by the Institute for Peace and Justice. You can link to it, here.


impossibleape said...

this is a great piece

I agree whole heartedly that hope can be misused to exploit and to pacify.

Your call to hopeful action makes a wonderful sermon.

Is this the basis of one of your sermons?

if so I will say a loud and awkward

TLS said...

Yes, this is a sermon. Recently I have been posting sermons to keep in touch with folks who are in now the CWM to speak. We have many members who now live far off and it is a way to keep them connected.

Glad you liked it.