On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and gave one of the greatest speeches of the century. He stood there that day and said it was time for black Americans to throw off the chains of discrimination. It was time, he said, for black Americans to rise from the desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. It was time, said Martin Luther King, Jr., for justice to roll down like waters, and for righteousness to flow like a mighty stream.
If you have seen footage of the speech, you know how electric the atmosphere in Washington was on that day, and how the electricity kept building right along with the speech. Dr. King spoke of justice in his speech and he did so in terms of a refrain that has since become the name of his speech: “I have a dream.”
And then a conclusion that has become famous across the world:
“When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children…will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
A whole generation of Americans of my age cannot read or hear this speech without wanting to shout, or to march, or to do something that expresses the surge of emotion that seems to start in our toes. The reason is not just that King gave one of the greatest speeches that any American has ever given. The reason is not that we sixty-somethings yearn for the summer of 1963 when we were seventeen. No, the speech gets to us because Martin Luther King, Jr. was a prophet that day in Washington. When he dreamed of justice, he dreamed the way Isaiah and Amos and Micah dreamed. Martin Luther King preached a sermon that day and he did it with a frank appeal to the righteousness of God.
The righteousness of God gives us a standard of right and wrong that people of all kinds ought to acknowledge. God has showed us what is good. As Jean Bethke Elshtain once pointed out, when Martin Luther King said “I have a dream,” he was telling us of The Dream. He was telling us the dream of prophets who know the righteousness of God. Martin Luther King’s speech would not have seized a nation’s heart if he had stood before the Lincoln Memorial and declared, “I have a preference. I have a personal preference today.”
No. The most eloquent addresses to human conscience appeal to the righteousness of God because God transcends our old habits And calls us to new ones. God transcends our little world And calls us to imagine a great world. The righteousness of God transcends our prejudice and our apathy and our terrible, cold indifference to the plight of people who need justice in their lives–people who hunger for justice, people who thirst for justice, people who cry out for justice the way a drowning woman cries out for a rope or a hand.
Do we all understand? When we speak of the justice and the mercy of God, we need the language of salvation. hen people in the Bible want God’s justice or God’s righteousness, they want more than for someone to arbitrate their disputes. They want more than for somebody to say, “Fred, you drew that property line from the tree to the rock, but you should have drawn it from t he tree to the creek.” No, when biblical people want God’s righteousness they cry out: “O God, rescue me. Deliver me. Bend your ear toward me, O God, And in your righteousness save me.” (Ps. 71) So when God a rises in majesty to do a mighty work of righteousness, we get more than a decision. We get an intervention. We get an Exodus out of Egypt. We get gleaning laws and a Year of Jubilee and preferential treatment for orphans and widows and resident aliens. We get these things because God is showing us what is good.
Salvation is good. Mercy is good. To love mercy–to relish mercy–is to savor mercy so much that at the end of the day you get with your friends And say “Listen, mercy was up two points today and let me tell you all about it.” To love mercy is very good.
Justice and mercy. And best of all is walking humbly with God. We need to do that in order to care about justice and mercy at all.