“Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you;
for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” — Matthew 2:13
We were newly married and brand new at seminary when someone found out we dreamed of owning a golden retriever one day and offered us a puppy at the bargain-basement price of $125.
She was from a wonderful kennel and the issue of a spectacular sire and dam but her original buyer had backed out of the deal for some reason, so $125 was a real steal, but we didn’t have a dime in cash, so the kennel offered us an installment plan: $10 bucks a month for a year.
We had no idea what we were doing, but we’d heard that golden retrievers like the water, so one Saturday we took the dog to the Jersey shore so that she could learn to swim, and she spent about five hours in the ocean, and she had a blast and after that day for the rest of her life we could never keep her out of the water.
When we got home that evening, she was so exhausted she fell instantly into a deep sleep. An hour later, still laying on her side and dead to the world, she began squealing with some intensity and her whole body was twitching and her paws were churning madly. It was positively violent. We were terrified; we thought she was having a seizure or something, but she was just dreaming. In her slumbering imagination, she was still body surfing at the Jersey shore. I’d give a week’s salary to know what dogs dream about when they dream.
Dreams can be violent, or dreams can be wonderful. Our subconscious spins alternate realities for us; we can live more than one life. Do you watch the Amazon show The Man in the High Castle? That show has fun conjuring variant futures.
Sometimes your somnolent mind will create this beautiful world for you, ex nihilo, and you are just disconsolate when the alarm clock explodes your virtual world.
Other times your subconscious betrays you with a nightmare so terrifying you wake up in a cold sweat with your heart racing, and your return to the real world is a vast mercy.
Most of us have nightmares of falling from a high place, or taking an exam we haven’t studied for. My recurrent nightmare is stepping into a pulpit with no preparation. Sometimes a nightmare will haunt you for days afterward.
Even the best dreams can be dangerous. Some dreams can get you killed. One day Joseph son of Jacob dreams that he is far superior to his 11 brothers. Ten of those 11 brothers, by the way, are older than he, yet somehow, they are all inferior and subordinate. Then Joseph has a slightly different version of the same dream, and then he tells his brothers about the dream. Twice. Anybody have a brother or sister who not only dreams a dream like that, but then has the chutzpah to tell you about it too? Don’t answer that.
Joseph’s unseemly dreams just make the 11 brothers seethe. This is understandable, although their response is a bit extreme. After briefly considering fratricide, they sell him instead into slavery in Egypt, where Joseph goes on to a spectacular career in further dream interpretation and the ministry of agriculture.
Have you ever noticed that the Gospel of Matthew is really just a retelling of the Israel in Egypt story from Genesis and Exodus? Like the Torah, the Gospel of Matthew is divided into five sections, or books. Like the first five books of the Bible, Matthew is a second Pentateuch. In the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod is a second Pharaoh who wants to kill all the little Jewish babies. In Matthew, as in Genesis, there is a beautiful dreamer named Joseph. Like the Old Testament Joseph, the New Testament Joseph will go down into Egypt as an illegal alien and save his family from certain destruction. In the Gospel of Matthew, and there alone, the baby Jesus will grow up to be a second Moses, who liberates his people from slavery, and goes up to a high mountain to preach the Sermon on the Mount, which is a new Torah, a new set of Commandments to supplement the first Ten.
So like his namesake from Genesis, the New Testament Joseph is a beautiful dreamer; his dreams are beautiful but harrowing. Dreams are often dangerous. Sometimes they can get you killed. And this is because dreams are not real, right? Dreams lack heft and substance. Dreams are ghostly. You remember the ghosts from the film Ghost, especially the Patrick Swayze character? He’s a phantasm; you can walk right through him and never know it. Dreams are like that: they’re just ghosts. Dreams are virtual reality. They are constructions of a future that does not exist and maybe never will.
You remember that Yeats poem where the young man is courting his lover, and he says, “I wish I had luxurious fabric to lay beneath your feet like a red carpet.” But he tells her he is too poor for that, and he says,
I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams beneath your feet;
Tread softly, then, because you tread on my dreams.
Remember that dreams are fragile; remember that because someone you love has spread her dreams beneath your feet. Tread softly when your 12-year-old spreads his dreams beneath your feet: “I will play for the Cubs someday.” Tread softly when your high school junior promises “I will study medicine at Johns Hopkins one day.” Step lightly when your tiny chorister says, “I will sing for the Lyric someday.” “I will dance on Broadway someday.” Tread softly.
Every year I am so glad that the whole country takes a day to think about the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., but never more so than this year. America is so riven just now, so tense with distrust, between the races, between the parties, between the classes. It was so healing to revisit Dr. King’s beautiful if diaphanous dream.
The March on Washington in August of 1963 commemorated the 100th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation, of course. Nine hundred buses descended on the District; 12-chartered trains arrived from New York City alone; a few walked there from Brooklyn; one guy roller-skated from Chicago; the police guessed that the crowd numbered 250,000.
The authorities expected all kinds of trouble and violence, but the March turned into a near-miracle of universal civility. The police respected the marchers; the marchers respected the police. Four people were arrested, all of them white.
Dr. King’s speech there is his most famous, probably the finest American oratory since Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, maybe since the Gettysburg Address from exactly 100 years before.
If you recite a portion of that speech to a teenager—“I have a dream that someday…”—if you recite that to an American teenager, 97% of them can identify the source. Can you believe that? I don’t think 97% of American teenagers know who Kim Kardashian is. This is sacred American Scripture.
But it almost wasn’t. It didn’t start out so great. Dr. King was the tenth of ten speakers; many marchers had already gone home. He started reading from his prepared script, and after a couple of minutes he knew he was losing the crowd.
The great Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was sitting behind him; she whispered to him: “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin; tell ‘em about the dream.”
So he pushed his manuscript to the side of the podium and launched an extempore riff he’d given a hundred times before: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…” And from then on, of course, it was magic.
By the way, this is neither here nor there, but did you know that Dr. King actually cribbed the conclusion of that speech from a Chicagoan? The most beloved section of that speech—“Let freedom ring from every mountainside”—was originally composed by a Chicago guy. Archibald J. Carey, Jr., was a Chicago attorney, a Chicago alderman, and the pastor at the Quinn Chapel AME Church in Chicago; it’s still there, Quinn Chapel on 24th Street between Wabash and Michigan; you can probably see it from the Stevenson.
Mr. Carey had delivered those words to the 1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago. I did not know that. I hope you appreciate all these little facts I dig up for you.
The reason the “I Have a Dream” speech became and remains sacred Scripture for Americans from the day Martin delivered it, and the reason he was in its entire history one of God’s greatest gifts to America, is that he was able at once both to love and to challenge his country.
He knew that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were just diaphanous dreams for many Americans; they had no heft or substance; they were ghostly, vaporous; they were merely virtual reality.
In 2013, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, they asked several prominent Americans to share their memories of the March and the Speech from 1963. One of them was Colin Powell. Secretary Powell said, “I never heard the speech or knew about the March. I was in Vietnam. I’d left my wife and baby in Birmingham that ugly summer [when Bull Connor was turning on the fire hoses and the Klan was blowing up churches filled with Sunday School children.] My father-in-law stood guard at my house with my wife and son while I was fighting for our country 8,000 miles away.” For Colin Powell in 1963, the Emancipation Proclamation was just a ghost, just virtual reality.
Dr. King made it perfectly clear that America was just a dream for many Americans, but he also said forcefully over and over and over again that America was the only dream in the world worth striving for. He never gave up on her, or on us.
Someone said that “Martin believed in America as if he’d written the Constitution, and he loved America as if he’d sown the first flag.”
And the reason Martin’s dream was so dangerous—it eventually killed him—is that he expected more from us than we thought we could give, white people and black people. He never gave up on America, and he never gave up on us, so we can never give up on the dream.
There are those who would set the nation on fire by stoking the embers of fear always faintly glowing even in the best of us. There are those who will never know any emotion but hatred for the different and the other, so we need this beautiful dream right now.
This dream will come true. I know it doesn’t always look like it. Sometimes this dream seems so unreal, so phantasmagoric. What happened last summer at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston would have broken Martin’s heart. I know that.
But I also know that he would have been at Dylan Roof’s trial last week, pleading for the killer’s life. Martin’s dream was uncompromising: you can never, never, ever, ever defeat violence with violence.
One day that dream will be more than an alternate reality, more than a ghost. That dream will gradually take on flesh and blood and bone and sinew and block and stone and steel and become as hard and real as Mount Rushmore.
And when that dream arrives, all God’s children—black people and white people, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we’ll be free at last.
William Butler Yeats, “The Cloths of Heaven.” Slightly adapted.
Most of the details about the March and the Speech are from Eric J. Sundquist’s wonderful book King’s Dream (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
Slightly adapted from Colin Powell, quoted by Michele Norris, “One Dream: Race in America: The Dream Today,” Time, August 26/September 2, 2013, pp. 90-99. Words in brackets are mine for historical clarification.
Slightly adapted from Julius Lester, Revolutionary Notes (New York: Richard W. Baron, 1969), p. 85, quoted by Sundquist, op. cit., p. 67.