Encountering God in One Another

Most Americans are familiar with Martin Luther King’s landmark “I Have A Dream” message, delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on the 28th of August in 1963. Less familiar is a sermon he delivered nearly two years later at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on the 4th of July in 1965 entitled “The American Dream.” The two messages are a contrast between the dazzling dream recounted in the morning light and revisiting that same dream in the hot noonday sun.

MLK and the civil rights movement had endured many challenges and setbacks in the two years since the March on Washington. Pressure mounted on King from all sides. Some voices pressed King to cease the demonstrations they viewed as disruptive to keeping peace and order in the south. Others believed King’s commitment to non-violence soul force was ineffective in bringing about change. They believed non-violence only amounted to a weak response, which was getting black and white civil rights activists injured or killed. The dream, seemingly, was turning into a terror.

When Dr. King stood up to preach on the 4th of July, he wanted to remind his congregation, and indeed all Americans, of the urgent challenges facing America. He knew this was a time when Americans from all walks of life would be celebrating freedom and the American dream. Still, King likely did not want the fireworks and barbecues to lull the nation’s conscience into a lethargy of inaction according to the country’s highest ideals.

Dr. King noted:
“The American dream reminds us, and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day, that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth. Now, ever since the founding fathers of our nation dreamed this dream in all of its magnificence— to use a big word that the psychiatrists use— America has been something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself.”

Yet MLK framed the tragedy of America’s current and lingering division in an eternal and enduring perspective. He seemed to understand that the most serious issues required a wisdom informed by more than what was trending, expedient, or easy.

Dr. King stated:
“You see, the founding fathers were really influenced by the Bible. The whole concept of the imago dei, as it is expressed in Latin, the “image of God,” is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected…There are no gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God.”

We are created in the image of God. For our communities to flourish we must recognize, honor, and act from this perspective. When we encounter people, we consciously and unconsciously categorize them. How would our civil discourse and our own apprenticeship to Jesus Christ be transformed if we intentionally reminded ourselves, no matter what our differences, that the person or group of people we are in conversation with or about, is created in the image of God? Would we disrespect and dismiss others so easily? As we celebrate this Fourth of July, and continue in this political season, I find Dr. King’s words fitting…“We have a great dream. It started way back in 1776, and God grant that America will be true to her dream.”