18 January 2011

Powerful stuff

Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech is full of poetry, metaphor, and allusion. Twice King quotes Scripture.

Amos 5:21-24 is one of the few places in the whole Bible where God is actually said to hate anything. It is nonetheless my favorite passage in the entire Old Testament, the one that I think comes closest to reconciling fire and brimstone with love and mercy. The verse King quotes comes rather unexpectedly in the middle of an angry prophetic tirade:

I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer up to me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

King is never angry, but at this point in his speech he is firm, insistent, even stern, and so his use of this verse at the end echoes Amos slightly. It’s an artful touch and a little brilliant.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Isaiah 40:3-5 says:

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:

And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

King adopts this as his ultimate dream.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

As King quotes this—there is no sugar-coating this—he teeters on the verge of nonsense. Not only is this prophecy already supposedly fulfilled (in John the Baptist, according to the gospels, all four of which directly quote it), but right after this passage about mountains being leveled, King is about to go into a series of riffs about, well, mountains (“let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire” and so on).

It works anyway, because whatever we think of the gospels, it is manifest that some crooked paths remain that want straightening, and rough places, and all the rest. King’s message is that justice will not be denied. Scripture promises the dream will be fulfilled.


Jeff Walden said...

The quote from Isaiah 40 doesn't seem like an already-fulfilled prophecy to me.

The prophecy of there being a voice of the wilderness is certainly fulfilled in John the Baptist. But his existence isn't really the main point of the passage, although it's perhaps easier to fixate on that because it's the only part that's been fulfilled. The words themselves are the most important part. While these words certainly refer to preparing for the first coming, as that was John's task, they also refer to the second coming. Certainly "all flesh shall see it together" was not true of the first coming, but it will be true of the second coming.

Jeff Walden said...

As for the incoherency of dreaming of all being level while freedom yet rings from the mountains, this is easily resolved by the dream of levelness metaphorically referring to complete moral and legal equality. The mountains and valleys of King's speech are those more equal and those less equal, while those of Isaiah are the sins and moral shortcomings of the world. This isn't the exact same sense. But King's use is definitely a subset of Isaiah's. King's referring to only a portion of the original's meaning is not incoherent to me. It's a riff. :-)