The hope of America, the hope of the prophetic

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. (Rowland Scherman / National Archives)“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream

Was MLK Jr. being optimistic or pessimistic in his iconic speech?1

Several readers caught that my previous post was a tribute to Donald Glover’s This Is America. Glover – stage name Childish Gambino – portrays an American people steeped in violence, guns, and systemic racism, who mask the reality by distracting themselves with pop culture, music, and drug use. Glover chooses the pessimistic view – America is brutal, and the happy moments are superficial gloss.2

That perspective can’t be lightly denied. As Shaun King, Erna Kim Hackett, and Lacrae point out, violence and the demonization of the other have been going on in this country for a long time. President Trump’s audaciousness even provides a public service, ripping off the veil of decency that kept many Americans from seeing what their countrymen have had to live with, that mask the compromises those in power have made to ensure that their hold on power remains secure. That mask the compromises we have accepted to ensure that the status quo is maintained. This might be the first year that people who identify as pimps and White nationalists could win Republican primaries, but greed and tribalism have always been driving forces.

Of course there is a better side to America, positives that cannot be ignored. Major M.J. Hegar’s story is real, America can be a place where a young girl from a broken home chases her dream, fights to achieve it, and breaks straight through glass ceilings. And as much as the missing parts of the story grate on many of us, Rodney Atkins’s experience of the camaraderie of football games and lemonade stands and communities coming together to help after a disaster is part of America too.

How does a Christian decide what we will represent and highlight? How can we give credit to the problems of America while also expressing that we believe it can be something more?

I believe the answer comes in the form of the prophetic.

The role of a prophet has been distorted to suggest someone who tells the future. But that is not the Biblical role. The primary job of the Biblical prophet was not to give insight into future realities, but to give insight into the full reality of the present moment. Most prophets told the future (at times) only to help the people understand what the results would be if they continued on their current path.

Isaiah was clear in expressing God’s issues with Israel in chapter 58

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.

For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God.

They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’

Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.”3

There is no doubt that Isaiah loved Israel. Yet Isaiah was one of many prophets who called out its sin, as Moses had called out the sins of Egypt, as Jonah had called out the sins of Ninevah, as Jesus would later call out the sins of Israel again.

This honesty about our shortcomings has to happen if we are to get better. We can’t ignore the suffering of the least, we can’t ignore the stains on our nation. True patriotism, desiring the best for our country, requires that we get honest about how it doesn’t measure up to our ideals yet.

But the second characteristic of the prophetic is that it assumes things can get better. The prophet speaks because he believes that the situation can change, he believes that the future does not always have to be like the past. As Isaiah continued:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: ‘Here am I.’

If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”4

This is where I break with Childish Gambino. It is not enough to say, “This is America” and assume that is all there is to it. We have to reach for more, we have to move to solutions, we have to hope that we CAN be better. Those who see injustice and say, “This is not America!” may be speaking hypocrisy, but it is a hypocrisy I welcome with open arms, because they believe that America can be something more than its worst impulses.

This is the hope of prophet Isaiah. This is the hope of the nonviolent preacher MLK Jr. This is the hope of every inner-city teacher, every environmental activist, every idealist crazy enough to move across the world to live in a slum. It is a hope in a God who rewards faith, a God who can move mountains, a God who is so much more than who we’ve been yet who desires so much to see what we can become.

If we didn’t believe in it, we wouldn’t be trying to change it.

As Martin Luther King Jr. continued on, “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

For some perverse reason, Jesus kept distracting me with all forms of current events this week and so I procrastinated on finishing this post until today. And today, by coincidence, is the 4th of July. America’s Independence Day.

How can I express hope on such a day, while also being honest to the struggles this nation is going on at this very moment?

Shad will do. Let’s celebrate some immigrants.5

Footnotes:

[1] “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulation. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering.

Continue to work with the faith that un-earned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley to despair.

I say to you today, my friends, though, 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 this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

I have a dream…”

The full text of Martin Luther King Jr.’s brief but profound speech can be found here.  Seriously, read it.

[2] I apologize profusely to Glover if I have misrepresented him in any way. My interpretation of his position comes not just from the content of the This Is America video but from several other videos from Glover as well as interviews he has done on the subject and the major themes of his television series, Atlanta.

[3] Isaiah 58:1-4

[4] Isaiah 58:6-10

[5] Yeah, I know Shad is technically Canadian. Nobody’s perfect.

4 thoughts on “The hope of America, the hope of the prophetic

  1. Nice post. As you say, the tension between acknowledging and mourning current problems and actively striving for a better future is a tough one. Visiting our friends in a poor Delhi neighbourhood today, the general sentiment was that the ‘mahol’ – the area’s feel and ethos – is rotten, and generally people want to move to the other side of town rather than move towards a better future where they are. And who can blame them?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “President Trump’s audaciousness even provides a public service, ripping off the veil of decency…” I’ve had trouble explaining this to others lately. The emergence of explicit racial hatred is (in the long run) going to force us to deal with something that we were just ignoring before. I can’t say that I’m glad of it, but I’m glad that sunlight is shining in some of the darker corners of our culture.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I suggested that this “might” be a legitimate benefit of his presidency since the election, especially regarding environmental issues but now racial issues as well. Whether it will actually work out that way for net benefit? I don’t know. The degree to which people seem willing now to co-sign almost any level of injustice or sin has been startling.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You’re absolutely right – we need to continue to hope things can be better. If we lose hope, it’s hard to have the energy to keep going, trying to do good, whether in America, or in the developing world.

    I like your idea that Trump’s presidency, as distasteful as it is, does provide a service to us, by revealing more clearly what was already there within us – selfishness, prejudice, fear, disregard for truth, brutality.

    How bad will things have to get for us to say, “Enough’s enough!” and start behaving in again with decency, compassion and integrity? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be ordinary people like you and me, who will bring about this change by behaving differently ourselves. While some political leaders, like Obama, seem to have had ideals that we can be better, usually they are so beholden to the system that their hands are tied to bring positive change. Instead, it is up to us to act – to welcome the refugee, to build community with Muslims, to act non-violently, to get our news from independent media. If enough of us do, then others will follow, and eventually even the political leaders, will have to become more humane too.

    Liked by 1 person

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