I didn’t know there was a word for a 150th anniversary, and when I first heard it, I had to look it up. This year marks the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the most important anniversaries in the history of the United States. 150 years ago, on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation set this country on the path of ending slavery; and a hard path it was.
Thankfully, Steven Spielberg made his movie Lincoln to honor that great president and celebrate that milestone of freedom. When Nancy and I watched it after Christmas, I appreciated the close-up look it gave us of Congress and various other settings that allowed us to feel and know the deep political and cultural divide in the country at that time. I knew that there had been many defenders of the idea that humans can hold other humans in bondage; I knew that, but seeing the faces of human beings who were making those arguments in a debate was an altogether different experience.
Some justified slavery by arguing that the advance of human culture and freedom had always depended on it. According to John C. Calhoun from South Carolina, “It was an inevitable law of society that one portion of the community depended upon the labor of another portion over which it must unavoidably exercise control.” And “freedom,” the editor of the Richmond Inquirer once declared, “is not possible without slavery.” The same minds also held another truth “to be self-evident,” namely “that all men are created equal,” and yet the apparent contradiction between the two led only very few to change their minds.
Others argued that slaves were really better off living in servitude on the plantation than they would have been in Africa, and that they should be grateful to their masters. Again in the words of John C. Calhoun, “[Slaves] had never existed in so comfortable, so respectable, or so civilized a condition as that which [they] enjoyed in the Southern States.”
And then there were the enlightened men of economic reason who knew the inevitable and unavoidable and self-evident laws of the market. The South, they argued, could not afford to free the slaves without causing widespread economic and financial ruin. The “unalienable rights” of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they said in effect, only applied so long as they didn’t threaten the economic survival of the masters. Much the same arguments had of course been made at Pharao’s court when Israel was in Egypt’s land.
Fifty years ago, on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, the United States once again stood at a crossroads. Nine years earlier, the Supreme Court had outlawed racial segregation in the public schools, but equality of citizenship was still a dream for non-white men and women. The politics were complicated, but the demands of justice were becoming obvious to a growing number of Americans. On August 27, 1963, hundreds of thousands of men and women from across the nation, blacks and whites, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, gathered at the Lincoln memorial, embodying together a better vision for the nation. It was on this occasion that Dr. King gave his famous speech, “I Have a Dream.”
“I started out reading the speech,” he later recalled, then “all of a sudden this thing came out of me that I have used — I’d used it many times before, that thing about ‘I have a dream’ — and I just felt that I wanted to use it here. I don’t know why, I hadn’t thought about it before the speech.” Folk history of the March on Washington would record that Mahalia Jackson called out in the midst of King’s oration, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” And so he did. He put aside the text of his carefully prepared speech and told the world about the dream.
“I still have a dream,” he said. “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will 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.’ ” Joan Baez heard the breath of God thunder through him. His wife Coretta remembered how “for that brief moment the Kingdom of God seemed to have come on earth.” And after that kingdom moment, the head of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division concluded that King’s “demagogic speech” made him the nation’s “most dangerous Negro.” He was dangerous because he quoted from the Declaration of Independence and from the prophets. He was dangerous because he dreamed of a day “when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.’ ” He was dangerous because, for America’s sake, he did not keep silent. “In a real sense America is essentially a dream,” he said, “a dream yet unfulfilled. It is the dream of a land where men [and women] of all races, colors and creeds will live together as brothers [and sisters].” He was dangerous because he opened our eyes for possibilities far beyond the status quo, and yet within reach for men and women of courage.
Dr. King was a patriot, perhaps one of the greatest American patriots of the 20th century, but ultimately his vision was bigger than any one country. We heard a passage from the book of Isaiah this morning where a voice declares, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent.” I will not sit still. I will talk and not stop talking. I will proclaim and not stop proclaiming. I will preach and not stop preaching. I will dream and declare and remind and I will not stop. I will not rest. I will not keep silent for the sake of the city until she has been lifted up like a crown of beauty in the hand of God and her vindication shines out like the dawn.
Whose passion is this? Who is speaking in this passage? Some say that this is the prophet who speaks in the voice of God. In a situation of disappointment and despair, when God’s people can think of themselves only as forsaken and of their city only as desolate, God’s resolve to speak and act wells up. And God declares, “I will not keep silent,” vowing to overcome all estrangement and forsakenness that has characterized the relationship of God and the beloved city, and not to rest until she shines like the dawn.
Others say that this is the prophet not speaking in God’s voice but rather promising to stand on the city walls like a sentinel and to break the silence day and night to make God remember God’s promises. The prophet will protest, preach, and proclaim without ceasing until God does what God has promised to do: restore Jerusalem so the nations can see her glory. The prophet will make sure that God gets no rest until Jerusalem is rebuilt, filled with her children, surrounded by smiling land, and shining with the glory of God.
Who is speaking in this passage? Whose passion is this? Either reading is possible and fruitful, and yes, you should try this at home. In either reading, the passion is for the promises of God that have guided God’s people since the days of Abraham and Sarah. The passion is for the promises of God to shape and restore the fractured relationships we have with each other, with our communities, and with the land. The passion is for Zion to be more than a hill or a city, but an icon of wholeness that inspires hope in all the places where people are tempted to believe that only masters can be free.
That is why I believe that Dr. King was an American patriot whose vision was greater than just this country. He was a prophet and preacher who would not keep silent for America’s sake because he would not keep silent for Zion’s sake. To those who suggested to fight the violence of segregation with violence, he replied,
Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight fire with fire’ method which you suggest is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that. Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies.
Like Zion, the beloved community is not one place, community, or country, but rather the good news of wholeness in every particular circumstance:
The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men [and women].
We are facing difficult debates and decisions about gun violence, about immigration, and about how to invest in the future when we’re already sitting on a pile of debt – and the politics are complicated, and the cultural divide is wide. Knowing that God’s passion and the passion of God’s prophets is for Zion, for the beloved community, perhaps we too will have the courage to act with creative and redemptive goodwill, even for our opposers.
 William L. Miller, Arguing about Slavery. The Great Battle in the United States Congress (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), p. 132
 See the first chapter of Eric J. Sundquist, King’s Dream (Yale University Press, 2009) at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/18/books/chapters/chapter-kings-dream.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0