Over the last couple of days, I’ve had this song running through my head:
Written and performed by Patty Griffin, the song is a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., and refers to his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which he gave on April 3, 1968 – the night before he was assassinated. (You can read the full text of the speech, and see a video of it here).
Just to pull some excerpts from the speech:
…the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around…But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding….
We need all of you. And you know what’s beautiful to me is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It’s a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones. And whenever injustice is around he tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and saith, “When God speaks who can but prophesy?” Again with Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me,” and he’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor”
…It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”
…Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.
…Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And 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!
There’s a reason Dr. King was as successful a preacher and leader as he was – It’s hard to read a speech like this one (even harder to hear it) and not heed the call to respond, to speak out in the name of whatever injustice we see before us. He had the ability to appeal to people’s convictions in a way that could invigorate even the most passive listener.
The thing is, most of us haven’t been to the mountaintop. We may get fired up by impassioned speakers and prophetic voices that remind us that it is possible to close the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be, that praying and working so that things on earth might be as they are in heaven, is not an exercise in futility; but, usually this dream is met with the harsh reality that we are anywhere but the Promised Land, which makes it hard to trust those who have been to the mountaintop and can see a better tomorrow on the horizon. The notion of a possible better tomorrow then becomes kind of a cruel joke – the perpetual carrot dangling in front of our noses; and, eventually we grow so weary from exhaustion and hunger that we just want to lie down in the wilderness.
“Sometimes I feel like I’ve never been nothing but tired, and I’ll be working ’til the day I expire. Sometimes I lay down, no more can I do. But, then I go on again, because you ask me to.”
So, what do we do in the meantime? What do we do when we feel lost, like we will be ambling in the wilderness forever?
We trust that those whose vision is longer and wider than ours see more than a mirage.
We love one another with gentleness.
We welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, comfort the afflicted, feed the hungry.
We lean on each other when we are weary; and, in that leaning, we realize that we are are not in the wilderness alone.
We remind ourselves that the very notion that we are working together as equal partners with people of different races, classes, ages, gender identities, sexual orientations – is a radical shift from 100 years ago.
We acknowledge that we are living in a period in history when people are empowered enough to advocate not only for themselves, but for all the marginalized and disenfranchised, when folks are starting to wake up to their privilege and to really learn how to look it square in the eye, but to dismantle the very systems which uphold it.
There are times when it seems like we are standing in the midst of a darkness that will not dawn. As Dr. King said, it’s only when it is dark enough that you can see the stars.
Let us enjoy the stars even as we work toward the dawn.