On Dreams and Dreamers

“I have a dream,” preached the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from the stairs of the Lincoln memorial fifty years ago, “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.”

As a dreamer, he is not alone.

Almost fifty years ago too a “dreamer” of other sorts, John Lennon, wrote the now famous song Imagine: “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky / Imagine all the people / Living for today”

“Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too / Imagine all the people / Living life in peace…

“You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one / I hope someday you’ll join us / And the world will be as one.”

Joseph, Pharaoh, Jacob, Nebuchadnezzar, Paul, Constantine, Descartes, Frankenstein, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, all of them were dreamers in their own way, as many others.

Dreams are the compost, the fertilizer of our human existence.  Our full humanity is displayed in our dreams.  We are all dreamers.

The question is not so much what are these dreams that we all have, but what do we do with them. 

There are people who, like Lennon, cast utopian dreams, blue unicorns that only fly in their convoluted and feverish minds.

But there is another kind of dreamer, one who cast realistic and much needed possible dreams.  Martin Luther King Jr. is one of them. 

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  I have a dream today.”

“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”  These were MLK possible dreams.

These possible dreams are the ones that bother and trouble those who profit from the disadvantaged.  They try to equate Lennon and King as if all of these dreams were only “dreams.”  But when they cannot achieve their manipulative intention, they resort to violence.

Many times those who dream possible dreams pay their dreaming with their lives.  A coward of sorts thought that killing MLK would kill his dream.  Dreams can be forgotten, dreams can be ignored, but dreams cannot be killed. 

When our Lord was raised on the cross little hope there was that his death would transform humanity.  But when resurrection happened, our perishable bodies put on imperishability, our mortal bodies put on immortality, and the saying was fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54). 

“This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

MLK dream is still marching on.  The dream is still not reached.  There is still too much cacophony that overrides the “symphony of brotherhood” that MLK dreamed of hearing in the red hills of Georgia, down in Alabama, all over our nation and the whole world.

While MLK is not with us any more, his dream is alive and well.   Not fully realized, a work in progress, fifty years later we refuse to forget or ignore the sermon of the Lincoln memorial. 

In this day, as we remember MLK, we commit to the dream anew.  So help us God.

Daniel Carro, Professor of Divinity


What Words Cannot Express

The Christian Century, one of the few worth-reading Christian magazines of our time, has proposed an interesting exercise in theology.  They have given some authors the challenge to express the gospel into seven words or fewer.  “It’s instructive to see what Christian proclamation boils down to when someone is put on the spot and has only a few words.  What is the essence of the essence of Christianity?” (Christian Century, September 5, 2012, p. 20.  To read all the efforts to put the gospel into seven words or fewer, go to http://www.christiancentury.org/7words).

An interesting exercise, indeed.  It is quite illuminating, for instance, to read how Carol Zaleski defines the gospel as “He led captivity captive,” M. Craig Barnes as “We live by grace,” and Ellen T. Charry as “The wall of hostility has come down,” just to mention the first three theologians that offer their distillation of distillations in the magazine article.

There is something disconcerting in the reading of the answers, though, beginning with the natural instinct of the reader to say: “Yes, that’s true, but the gospel is also…”  Of course, after reviewing the 15 “essences” of the gospel that are portrayed in pages 20-25 of the magazine –and the many others in the web page–, one gets a “broader” picture.  Then, the question comes to mind about the purpose of the compilation of these 7-worded manifestos of “the essence of the essence,” as the editors call these declarations.  What is the function of reducing the gospel to seven words if in order to understand it fully you need a compilation of declarations?

I have to agree that in the age of Tweeter, the Christian Century’s challenge is a commendable one.  Commendable, yet futile.

If the gospel is about words, it is about just one word, one strong four-lettered word: LOVE.

Anything of the gospel that is worth mentioning can be related in one way or another to love.  But gospel-love itself cannot be reduced to a word.  The theological issue of the centuries has been how to subsume Christian love into words.

Whatever we have learned of the gospel, it is that the gospel is not about words.  “The kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power,” wrote Paul to the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:20 NAS) .

The gospel is not about words, but about the incarnate Word.

The “essence” of the Word is about incarnation.  The gospel is about the imitation of that incarnation.  The gospel is not about what we say, it is about what we do.  There are no words that can replace incarnation.  It’s like a kiss: If you have to explain it, it loses its meaning.

The Jesus Christ event was not important for what Jesus said, but for what Jesus did.  “Though he was rich,” writes Paul, “…for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9 NRSV).  “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many,” he said of himself (Mat 20:28 NRSV).

Jesus was a great teacher, indeed, and a captivating speaker.  His most important teachings, however, were not conveyed in words, but in action.  In the evening of the Last Supper, he taught a last enduring lesson to his maverick disciples by wrapping a towel around his waist.  None of the great apostles he had gathered had been ready to be the feet washer of the others that evening; then Jesus taught them the unforgettable lesson of the humility and service that is required to be worthy of the gospel by washing one-by-one their dirty feet.

Jesus did not need words.  He taught in deed something completely unexplainable: The essence of the gospel is being the loving servant of the others (Eureka: it’s seven words!).

Perhaps the time has come for us theologians to learn how to express our theology without words.  Traduttore, traditore.  When we “translate” the non-verbal essence of the gospel into words we betray the most sacred essence of the gospel, we betray love.  Perhaps it is time for us to learn that theology is not something that we declare, but something that we do.

The gospel is a work of love.  Entering the kingdom of love is entering the kingdom of something that words cannot express.  Not even our most distilled theology.

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