Every year, I listen again to Martin Luther King Jr.’s, I Have a Dream speech. And every year, this brilliant speech challenges me to be a better Christian, American, and human being. Martin Luther King Jr.’s insights about American life, his concern for the most vulnerable, and his distinctively Christian vision for the world are woven seamlessly through every speech and sermon that he gave. The Bible plays an indispensable role in King’s life. If King’s moral vision can be compared to a symphony, then the Bible provided diverse instruments that shaped his I Have a Dream anthem.
What can we learn about how Martin Luther King Jr. engaged the Bible?
The Bible is not an old, dusty reference book for Dr. King, but the fresh, dynamic, voice of God. All human learning is a dialogue between the familiar and unfamiliar, the known and the new. As King reflects on the problems in America he does so in conversation with the Bible. King finds within the diverse and rich images of the Bible a book that talks back.
It’s this back and forth, this dynamic conversation, which is the greatest gift of scripture.
Reading through King’s sermons and speeches, the Bible is a transformative dialogue partner that criticizes, energizes, and mobilizes.
The Bible Criticizes
The Bible makes sense when it is read as a book for the underdogs because it challenges, provokes, and tirelessly speaks against the injustices of the status quo. From the Bible’s central storyline about God hearing and then acting for the cries of the Israelites caught in Egyptian Slavery to Jesus’ actions that demonstrated his solidarity with victims, his concern for the poor, the outcasts, and the marginalized (See Exodus 3:7-10 & Luke 19:10). The Bible challenges us to create systems and structures in our world that care for orphans, widows, and aliens (Deuteronomy 10:18 & James 1:17). Some will quote other verses that appear to contradict the point here but a major theme of the Bible is care for the most vulnerable. King’s brilliance lies in fusing this biblical challenge to the suffering of African Americans. He says, “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that is marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
In King’s 1967 address Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence King opposes the war in Vietnam by reading the situation through the eyes of the Vietnamese. He does not disrespect U.S. soldiers but provocatively calls America to change. The denouement of this speech comes in the last second as he thunderously proclaims “But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).”
For King, the Bible is a prophetic thunderbolt. It is a book that speaks against injustice, forever shouting strongly and boldly for a world of equity for all. But King as well as the Bible doesn’t leave us with strong criticisms it provides a way forward.
The Bible Energizes
The rich images of the Bible help us dream about what the world can become.
As Isaiah 61:1-2 imagines, the world is the place where the good news is preached to the poor, the brokenhearted are healed, the captives are set free, the prisoners are released and the mourners are comforted. This is very same verse that Jesus will use to describe his ministry upon the earth (See Luke 4:16-20). Another important prophetic verse that appears in the I Have a Dream speech as well as other sermons and speeches is Isaiah 40:3-5.
Every valley shall be raised up,
Every mountain and hill made low;
The rough ground shall become level,
The rugged places a plain.
King allows these images to move him as he dreams about a new America. King allows the images of Isaiah to help him dream about America.
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 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.
The Bible does not just tear down the house but shows us how a well-crafted house can be built. The Bible gifts us with images that allow us to dream up possibilities.
The Bible Mobilizes
The Bible does not just criticize and energize but it also mobilizes. The goal has always been experiencing the type of communion that leads to a better world (Acts 2:43-47 & 4:32-35. That’s why Jesus taught his followers to pray: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).” The prayer invites us to imagine the storehouses of goodness crashing down upon the earth because of our prayers and actions. Paul reminds us that our gifts have the noble purpose of “building up (1 Corinthians 14:13).” The Book of Ephesians uses a metaphor of movement when it says that the people of God are the “multifaceted wisdom of God” that is being made known to the rulers and authorities (3:10). This is why King, towards the end of his I have a Dream Speech offers this action-oriented plea:
I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest — 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 unearned 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.”
In the Letter From a Birmingham Jail, King legitimates his presence in Birmingham by equating his concern with the 8th Century Prophets and St. Paul’s concern for injustice in the Greco Roman world. With this interpretive move, King makes parallel the ministry of the Prophets, St. Paul and his own. King understands himself, Paul, and the prophets to be part of God’s movement of squelching injustice.
The Bible is an excellent conversation partner for King as he reflects on the painful social, economic, and political realities of not only African Americans but also Americans and the world.
This brief reflection invites us to think about our own engagement with the Bible.
Is it possible for the words of the Bible to speak once again?
Will we have the ears to hear and the courage to enter this dynamic conversation and allow the Bible to criticize, energize, and mobilize our days? The least, the last, and the lost cannot be overlooked and the Bible’s inclusive vision of communion, love for God and love for others, that leads to a new world cannot wait.
May you listen to King’s I Have a Dream speech and may you turn your ear once again to the word of all words, the speech of all speeches; the fresh, dynamic, voice of God.
And may we sing because this is the song that all creation is waiting for.
The Heart of Call
The rain falls. The wiper blades whisk away the drops. I grip the steering wheel, rub my eyes, and check the cruise control. The road is like Kansas or Nebraska: flat and long. Yellow signs read: “Drowsy Driver Use Next Exit.” I sigh. Tap my feet. Flip through my iTunes audiobooks. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” plays through my Honda Accord’s speakers.
“If the church
Does not recapture
The sacrificial spirit
Of the early church,
It will lose its authentic ring,
Forfeit the loyalty of millions,
As an irrelevant social club
With no meaning
For the twentieth century.”
Dr. King’s words are a shiny billboard.
I pull over my car
and I am blinded
by falling tears.
Many seek purpose
But find the church drowning
the spiritual seekers
the doubters and dreamers
the hard workers
the famished and the full
the question askers
the broken hearted
the difference makers
the rising generation
our numbers are growing
for a vision of Jesus
that heals the fault lines of the world.
For the living water
that quenches thirsty souls.
This is my Galilean Sea,
King’s warning and
church-wide discipleship crisis.
This is where I hear the words, “Follow me.”
Who will listen to this generation?
Who will walk beside them?
Who will pray and weep for them?
Who will break the bread
and share the cup with them?
Who will teach them the way of discipleship?
The rain keeps falling.
My eyes are swollen.
The road is narrow.
The harvest huge.
The workers few.
God stretches out hands and catches
rain and tears and every fear.
Nothing is wasted.
God steadily whispers: “Do not be afraid.”
Faith and hope and love near.
Who will go? I will go.
This is my Galilean Sea,
rain and tears and every fear.
The heart of calling—the “follow me.”
I want to stand in this gap.
I want to press my hands to the plow.
I want to teach and preach
with creativity and passion.
I want people to experience living water.
I want to see flourishing human lives—
beauty, meaning, purpose alive.
The rain falls. Drop after drop. Each splash stirring new life. Every tear a divine reminder. Have you stood on the shores of the Galilean Sea? Can you hear the heart of calling? Can you hear Jesus’ “Follow me?”