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On April 3, 1968, on the night before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told a Memphis audience that his eyes had seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. With what would prove to be a prophetic voice, King declared, “He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
When I think about the mountain of which King spoke, I think, too, of Mount Calvary. When God allowed King to go up to the mountain, did he there see Christ carrying the cross on which He would be crucified? Did King see a great cloud of witnesses, the church fathers of whom Scripture speaks? Did King glimpse the paradise Christ promised to the repentant thief crucified beside Him? Did King glimpse the beloved community of which he so often spoke: an idyllic land of true freedom and justice for us all?
When I think about the mountain of which King spoke, I think, too, of Amanda Gorman. She so eloquently captured the nation’s attention as she spoke of, “The hill we climb/If only we dare/It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit/it’s the past we step into/and how we repair it.” Must every American ascend a mountain, a hill, in order to take in an unobstructed view of our collective past? Why have we dared not ascend this hill? Truly, how can we claim to take pride in a nation whose history we haven’t taken the time to examine and reckon with? Can a flat, one-dimensional perspective of who we are, a perspective which overlooks the parts of our culture that are in desperate need of repair, yield the unity that so many of us claim to desire?
When I think of the mountain of which King spoke, I think, too, of what happens once God’s people have stepped into the water to walk through to the other side, out of bondage and into freedom – not knowing that what awaits them is wilderness. What happens after God’s people have heard and obeyed His call to follow Him out of bondage and into the liberation He has prepared for them? When present-tense uncertainty begins to crowd out the hope of future-tense stability and safety, making the familiarity of past-tense bondage look incredibly alluring by comparison?
In his memoir, The Other Side of Freedom, activist DeRay McKesson speaks of how to handle such tension as he outlines the difference between faith and hope. “Faith,” says McKesson, “is rooted in certainty; hope is rooted in possibility…The work of faith is to actively surrender to forces unseen, to acknowledge that what is desired will come about, but by means that you may never know, and this is difficult…Hope is the belief that our tomorrows can be better than our todays.”
Did King see in the Promised Land he spoke of the world DeRay McKesson speaks of – a world we have never seen before, “of equity, justice, and joy…something altogether new?”
Will we be able not only to glimpse but also to inherit the Promised Land once we have completed the active work it will take to ascend the hill we climb?
Was Christ’s crucifixion on Mount Calvary intended not only to fulfill prophecy by demonstrating sacrificial love, not only to display brutal suffering we too may witness or experience this side of heaven, but also to show us that love puts in work?
Freedom won’t come to us while we watch blameless people of color be killed time and again by brutality, by systemic oppression, by generational trauma. Rather, freedom will come to us once we’ve demonstrated our own willingness to love actively in order to bring liberation to all humankind.
When King ascended the mountaintop on the night before his murder, and saw the glory of the coming of the Lord, did he see an active love that liberated all people not from the bondage of spiritual sin, but from the bondage of humankind’s mistreatment and hatred of each other?
- If we truly believe that a violent crucifixion was required by the God who made us in order to reconcile His creation unto Himself; if we hold as sacred that the only way to God is through the murder of a willing and holy sacrifice of one’s own body, then how does that belief color our expectations of people who are tortured, brutalized, and killed around us?
- Do we expect that violent injustice at the hands of humanity’s selfishness and corruption is the price for living a corporeal life that is worthy of spiritual reward?
- Is our inner dialogue one that dismisses the traumatic wounds that emerge from watching family members, friends, and fellow people of color killed time and again, because we believe that each death – no matter how tragic – represents a soul that now sees the other side of freedom, an individual who has ascended the mountaintop?
- What are we going to do to show active, liberating love to our neighbors? What will we have to give up in order to ascend the mountain and see the glory of the coming of the Lord ourselves?
Friends of King’s who accompanied him that evening have stated that he was teary eyed, that he seemed to be speaking with finality. They posit that King knew the time of his death was coming near. And perhaps he did.
I hope that this week, you will spend time taking in and reflecting on King’s mountaintop speech, and that you will read or listen to DeRay McKesson’s and Amanda Gorman’s work as well. Whatever our religious or personal beliefs, it seems clear that hope is active and that the goal of freedom requires the work of love. Let’s keep working together to show love to one another and thereby build a more peaceful world, one piece at a time.