A Difficult Dream

You’ll most likely read or hear a bit of the famous “I Have A Dream” speech today, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  The truth expressed in those mighty words is simple enough.  Every one of us can easily envision the “table of brotherhood.”  How we go about taking our seats at that table is a greater challenge to our imaginations.

King’s vision of a nation where his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character” is the most-discussed aspect of his dream, but others are provided in his great speech for us to ponder.  The very first one he mentions is that his nation would rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”  The rest of that creed, thundered against the prevailing winds of history in our Declaration of Independence, says that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” and that to secure these rights, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

We still ride upon shock waves from the fiery birth of this incredible idea.  Clearly Dr. King was right to say that black Americans did not consent to the official discrimination they lived under.  The great political struggle of our day has come about because many of us no longer consent to the wasteful and authoritarian government that sits in Washington.  There is no way for Big Government to exist in concert with the consent of the governed.  The larger it becomes, the more it must dismiss the consent of those it taxes and regulates. 

“Consent” is not a meaningful concept without respect for the option of withdrawing it.  You aren’t a “willing” passenger on a vehicle you can never escape from.  The Founders explicitly recognized this in the Declaration of Independence, when they spoke of a people’s right to “alter or abolish” an unjust government.  And yet, we are told with increasing urgency that we may not withdraw our consent from massive government programs we never agreed to in the first place.  We can have a little input into how these programs are run, but they are permanent, even when they were only created a year ago.  A State that values the consent of the governed has no right to begin a course of action that can never be ended.

King dreamed that one day every state in the Union would be “transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”  When will we learn that those things come together?  Every effort to engineer “justice” by compromising freedom is doomed to fail, because they always end with the powerful deciding which injustices are acceptable, to defeat the ones they consider intolerable.  Sacrificing freedom in the pursuit of justice is asking America to drink its own blood in order to build its muscles.

The “glory of the Lord” King longed to behold does not shine upon a land where “freedom” means a choice between masters.  No one can force “little black boys and black girls” to “join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”… but they will do it on their own, if we love them enough to have faith in them.  Bind them in obligations, and they will come to resent the people they are shackled to. 

A land of universal brotherhood cannot include pointed exceptions for hated class enemies.  A free man does not spend his life feeding on the sweat of another man’s brow.  Those chains of obligation are formed from exactly the same presumption of moral inferiority that King denounced on the Washington Mall.  We have made great progress in putting discrimination by skin color behind us, but we still tolerate a system that could not endure without discriminating against its citizens in a thousand ways.  A just State does not act against citizens who have committed no crime.

To complete our journey to Martin Luther King Jr.’s promised land, we must behold one another with mutual respect and trust.  The final steps must be taken willingly, and together.  It’s very difficult to have both free will and unity at the same time.  True brotherhood is not forged beneath a hammer.  It is born, and like every birth, the process is messy and painful.  How can you cleanse the last vestige of prejudice and hatred from your mind, when looking upon a fellow citizen from a different race, class, or creed?  See them clearly.  Trust them.  Believe in them. 

Dr. King’s great speech is also a prayer, because he understood that the opposite of prejudice is faith.  Freedom is the ultimate expression of faith in our fellow man.  Let freedom ring.