Fifty years ago, in 1963, thousands gathered in Washington, DC, calling for justice for African-Americans.
I remember watching it on a black and white television at home in Darby, a blue collar suburb of Philadelphia.
Martin Luther King’s speech inspired many of us with his dream of a country that lived out its belief that “all men [and women] are created equal.”
His speech laid out the biblical roots of this dream as well as the cost of trying to live this dream.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places made plain, and the crooked places be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
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 nation 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 be free one day.
But Martin Luther King also saw the nightmare that has always been a possibility for the United States and other nations.
In ”Beyond Vietnam,” a speech a year before his death, he warned of what the US had become in the world. He pleaded for an end to the Vietnam War:
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.
And he identified the roots of this madness, this malady, this sin in the giant triplets of “racism, materialism, and militarism.”
But, like a good prophet he offered a way out:
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
Today as the US remembers Dr. King’s vision, the US government is considering the use of military violence in Syria and continues to support with arms and training repressive regimes.
King’s dream has been robbed of his prophetic power – the power to give us something to live for as well as the power of knowing what we must turn from if we want to live this dream.
And so we who are citizens of the US should take into account what Jesus says in today’s Gospel (Matthew 23: 29-31):
Woe to you teachers of the Law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous. You say: “Had we lived in the time of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you yourselves confess to be descendants of those who murdered the prophets.