As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday it’s important not just to remember all that he endured to make our nation a better place; but to take stock of how far we’ve drifted from his soaring oratory.
His most well-known speech occurred on August 28, 1963. “I Have a Dream”. It’s beautiful. Eloquent. Dr. King’s appeal is as delicate as it is powerful. “I Have a Dream” was and remains tremendous.
Another, often called “The Street Sweeper Sermon” is just as powerful in large measure because of it’s prescience.
The formal name for “The Street Sweeper Sermon” is “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”. Dr. King delivered this on April 7, 1967 at the New Covenant Baptist Church in Chicago. In it, Dr. King first explained the importance of dedication and perseverance:
What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends, even if it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composes music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well”. If you can’t be a pine on the top of a hill, be a scrub in the valley but be the best little scrub on the side of the hill. Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway just be a trail. If you can’t be the sun be a star. It isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are…and when you do this, when you do this, you’ve mastered the length of life.
Are these qualities valued anymore in American life? How do they translate into work? Is it a matter of “fighting for $15” – which doesn’t do anything to change anyone’s quality of life – or aspiring to do one’s best at even the most menial or abhorrent tasks. (For the record, yours truly has worked as a restaurant dishwasher and janitor – menial labor isn’t unfamiliar to me).
Real unemployment is approximately 9.9%. That’s from Table A-15 found in the Labor Department’s monthly employment report (Dec 2015 being the most recent month for which such figures are available). 9.9% is most likely artificially low – several years ago Labor stopped providing detailed statistics on the “long term unemployed”. At least one in every ten working age adults aren’t employed.
To be fair, some of those unemployed are in that position through no fault of their own, or because social welfare policies would penalize them if they took jobs. How many aren’t? They are waiting for “the right position” because stocking shelves or cleaning toilets isn’t good enough for them. Moreover, how often are those that do such jobs derided in popular culture?
Dr. King next turned inward:
And when you do this, when you do this, you’ve mastered the length of life. The onward push to the end of self-fulfillment is the end of a person’s life. Now don’t stop here though. You know, a lot of people get no further in life than the length. They develop their inner powers. They do their jobs well. But do you know, they try to live as if nobody else lives in the world but themselves?
“And they use everybody as mere tools to get to where they’re going. They don’t love anybody but themselves. And the only kind of love that they really have for other people is utilitarian love. You know, they just love people that they can use”.
From Kardashians to Clintons – there isn’t much difference between the two really – it’s not hard to find examples of this passed off as just another thing in our daily culture. Take a trip through the various “reality” TV shows and the things Dr. King warns of aren’t just apparent, they are central to the show’s theme!
A lot of people never get beyond the first dimension of life. They use other people are mere steps by which they can climb to their goals and their ambitions. These people don’t work out well in life. They may go for a while, they may think they’re making it all right, but there is a law. They call it the law of gravitation in the physical universe, and it works, it’s final, it’s inexorable; whatever goes up can come down. You shall reap what you sow. God has structured the universe that way. And he who goes through life not concerned about others will be a subject, victim of this law.
Dr. King links victimhood not with external qualities but with personal responsibility. Do we do that anymore? We don’t. We live in an era of semi-permanent offense. An age in which anyone can find an offensive quality in anything and then ignite throngs of complainants into the streets to protest. Provided the target of the protest is always someone or something western and or white; and the aggrieved is part of the forever variable class of victims. When there isn’t a directly identifiable target, then indirect things like “systemic” racism are trotted out to absolve anyone of personal responsibility for their life’s choices.
“So I move on and say that it is necessary to add breadth to length. Now the breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others, as a I said. And a man has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow confines of his own individual concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity”.
Today’s “broader concerns of all humanity” are curious, aren’t they? Just ask a Hillary or Sanders supporter where they fall in with Dr. King’s statement. Chances are, the answer they provide will be littered with references to government programs, the need for still more such programs, and maybe, “Wall Street versus Main Street” hate speech directed towards those “evil one percenters”.
Government programs though don’t address broad concerns for all humanity. If anything, they tend to make things worse for those subjected to such programs. Detroit, Chicago, and Baltimore offer three such examples. In each, generations of social welfare policies have done little to address largely impoverished and largely non-white city residents. Where’s the “concern” for their “humanity”?
The same thing happens in largely white areas, too. Visit Appalachia. Or the rural Carolinas. In those places government assistance is manifest. This author has been surprised on more than one occasion to see city bus services plying routes across isolated areas – the buses painted up in the full regalia one would expect of urban mass transportation while the seats were completely empty hour after hour after hour. Is that how “concern” is shown for “humanity” nowadays?
For those liberals that still wish to hitch the wagon containing their agenda to Dr. King’s legacy, he finished up in territory they’d prefer didn’t exist:
Now a lot of people have neglected this third dimension. And you know, the interesting thing is a lot of people neglect it and don’t even know they are neglecting it. They just involved in other things. And you know, there are two kinds of atheism. Atheism is the theory that there is no God. Now one kind is a theoretical kind, where somebody just sits down and starts thinking about it, and they come to a conclusion that there is no God. The other kind is a practical atheism, and that kind goes out living as if there is no God.
An organization called the “Freedom From Religion Foundation” has a neat little racket they run. They seek out small towns and rural areas that can’t afford large-scale legal bills. Then, when those places do things like erect nativity scenes in December on city land, they write threatening letters to city hall from an “anonymous” and offended resident. The threat is usually enough to force removal of the “offensive” stuff.
The aggressiveness with which such atheistic beliefs are pursued is on par with the zealotry of a religious fundamentalist. Indeed, atheism for such people is a faith – they worship at the altar of state and entertainment.
Speaking of entertainment, how’s Christianity treated? When it isn’t portrayed as a joke, the popular image normally offered is either one modeled on Catholicism (to bring up memories of abuse scandals) or it’s one of a flyover state. bitter-clinger preacher that probably disagrees with all the trendy hipster things millennials think are important.
What Dr. King rounded things out with today would be banned if included in the half-time festivities at a high school football game, and would be treated as insane if SNL or The Daily Show found out about it:
And you know there are a lot of people who affirm the existence of God with their lips and then deny his existence with their lives. You’ve seen these people who have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. They deny the existence of God with their lives and they just become so involved in other things. They become so involved in getting a big bank account. They become so involved in getting a beautiful house, which we should all have. They become so involved in getting a beautiful car that they unconsciously just forget about God. There are those who become so involved in looking at the man-made lights of the city that they unconsciously forget to rise up and look at that great cosmic light and think about it – that gets up in the eastern horizon every morning and moves across the sky with a kind of symphony of motion and paints it’s technicolor across the blue a light that man can never make. They become so involved in looking at the skyscraping buildings of the Loop of Chicago or Empire State Building of New York that they unconsciously forget to think about the gigantic mountains that kiss the skies as if to bathe their peaks in the lofty blue, something that man could never make. They become so busy thinking about radar and their television that they unconsciously forget to think about the stars that bedeck the heavens swinging like lanterns of eternity, those stars appear to be shiny, silvery pins sticking in the magnificent blue pincushion. They become so involved in thinking about man’s progress that they forget to think about the need for God’s power in history. They end up going days and days not knowing that God is with them.
And I’m here to tell you today that we need God. Modern man may know a great deal but his knowledge does not eliminate God. And I tell you this morning that God is here to stay. A few theologians are trying to say that God is dead. And I’ve been asking them about it because it disturbs me to know that God died and I didn’t have a chance to attend the funeral. They haven’t been able to tell me yet the date of His death. They haven’t been able to tell me yet who the coroner was that pronounced Him dead. They haven’t been able to tell me yet where He’s buried.
You see, when I think about God, I know his name. He said somewhere, back in the Old Testament, “I want you to go out, Moses, and tell them, ‘I Am’ sent you”. He said just to make it clear, let them know that “my last name is the same as my first, ‘I Am that I Am’. Make that clear. ‘I Am’”. And God is the only being in the universe that can say “I Am” and put a period behind it. Each of us sitting here has to say “I am because of my parents, I am because of certain environmental conditions, I am because of certain hereditary circumstances, I am because of God”. But God is the only being that can just say “I Am” and stop right there. “I Am that I Am”. And He’s here to stay. Let nobody make us feel that we don’t need God.
This is the God of the universe. And if you believe in Him and worship Him, something will happen in your life. You will smile when others around you are crying. This is the power of God.
We’ve drifted so far from Dr. King’s words it’s surprising they haven’t been banned from public discourse and replaced by sermons replete with venom like “white folks’ greed fuels a world in need” and “America’s chickens are coming home to roost”.