Given the overlapping celebration of Dr. King’s holiday and the inauguration of Barack H. Obama’s second terms as president, there is the tendency to want to connect to dots between Martin and Obama, to see President Obama as somehow the fulfillment of Martin’s dream. Some, such as As Interior Secretary Ken Salazar have gone so far as to say that Obama is “the personification of [King’s] American dream.”
This connection is made all the more vivid when President Obama chose Martin’s Bible as one of the two used (along with Lincoln’s) for his swearing this ceremony.
As tantalizing as this connection is, the very prophetic tradition that Martin arose out of calls us to resist this connection.
No, Brother Obama, that talented, charismatic, and eloquent speaker, is not the fulfillment of Brother Martin’s dream.
Not yet, and maybe never, unless we make it so.
Yes, we have made some strides, and yes, the re-election of America’s first black president is something, but we are not post-racial, or post-anything. Racism is with us, the poor are with us, the downtrodden are with us, the marginalized and the despised and the dispossessed and the discriminated against are with us.
I say this out of a profound love for the potential of Brother Obama: He obviously cares deeply about his legacy—almost anyone who would aspire to the highest office in the land would and should—and if he wants his legacy to read as a real fulfillment of Martin’s dream, he has lots of work to do in his second term.
We as a nation are an Empire today, a crumbling empire. We have military bases on more than 150 countries, and a real democracy does not behave that way. Martin warned us that the “triple giant of evil” includes militarism, and if we want to save the soul of America and to be true to Martin’s dream, we have to undue our addiction to the war machine.
We are a nation that drops bombs from drones on civilians of Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan, and we know where Martin would stand on that: reminding us that our own government is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, and that the children we kill in Muslim countries are every bit made in the image of God as our children in Newtown and elsewhere.
On the militarism issue, let us not deceive ourselves. Martin had a very specific idea about where our resources as a society should be spent, and it was not for the military-industrial complex. It was to put food in the wrinkled stomachs of God’s children. Yet since his time we see every American president, Democrat and Republican, go down to put a wreath down on Martin’s tomb, and then move right back to engaging in warfare. Our society is more militarized than it was in Martin’s age, and we now spend more in our military spending than the next 12 countries combined. If in the 1960s Martin called the United States the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” what would he say about us today, after the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghanis?
Martin had said that a nation that spends more on the military than on programs of social uplift is already approaching “spiritual death.”
By that reckoning, we have to be bold enough to ask–and answer this question: how is the soul of America doing today?
We have to have the honesty and moral clarity to admit that we as a people are not doing so well, and that the diseases of racism, classism, sexism, materialism, militarism, etc., are eating away at the soul of our nation. We have work to do, and we cannot rest on a delusional mythology of having realized Martin’s dream when we are even sicker than we were in his age.
We are a nation that has bailed out the bank industries and the auto industries, but we have not bailed out poor working people, we have not bailed out families, we have not bailed out the elderly and the sick, we have not bailed out the college students buried under loans.
As Brother West has said, Barack Obama is “a” fulfillment of Martin’s dream, not “the” fulfillment of that dream. Let me say in the tradition of Martin that there can be no disappointment where there is not great love. As one who loves and prays for Brother Obama and yet is severely disappointed in him and many of his decisions, let us speak truth to power by noting that he has surrounded himself with many advisors of the status quo who have neglected the mission to stand up for the poor. All of this and the politics based on consensus with the lowest common denominator rather than molding conscience through appeal to a higher conscience has resulted in confusing the “is-ness” of life with the “ought-ness” of life, as Martin said.
This day, every day, if we want to honor Martin, let us realize that: “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
That is the way to honor a prophet, by heeding their prophetic call, and standing up for God’s children by removing all that blocks love for all. As Martin said, this mission would have to cultivate:
“allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.”
This day, every day, if you want to honor Martin, pick up the mantle of Martin, and continue the struggle for peace and justice based on a commitment to love for all, a commitment to nonviolence, and a commitment to “let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” [Amos 5:24]
As someone who loves Brother Obama, and does indeed pray for him and the fate of the American Republic, I hope and pray—and will continue to hold him and us accountable—that the second term will be indeed one that will be worthy of being called a fulfillment of Martin’s Dream. That day, however, has not been in the past, and is not even with us here today, unless we as a people push to bring it about. Time, as Martin so often told us, is morally neutral. It is only the sacrifice of those committed to a struggle that brings about justice and peace in society.
Let us not rest in delusional messianic dreams, and instead commit ourselves to the long and hard work to redeem this crumbling empire into a responsible member of the world community, one that Martin himself lived for and gave his life for.