Johannesburg, South Africa 2009: I was thrilled when we arrived in that city, especially since one of my heroes was and is Nelson Mandela. In many ways, he was more a hero to me than Martin Luther King Jr. I was in my early teens when Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement played out in the newspapers and on TV. During most of those years, Mandela was locked away in the Robben Island Prison and the movement to end South African Apartheid was viciously suppressed. I was, however, in my prime when, in the 1980’s, a worldwide movement against Apartheid gained steam. How exciting and exhilarating it was when Mandela was released from prison and, within a few years, elected President of South Africa! It was, and always will be, one of the great moments of history.
Before we left on our trip, I read Mandela’s inspiring book The Long Road to Freedom. His book led me to believe that it was a whole new world in South Africa. I could not wait to get to Johannesburg and see for myself the fruits of Mandela’s labors.
We arrived quite late at night. It was a starless night so there was not too much visible as the taxi took us from the airport to our hotel. The next morning we rented a cab to take a quick tour of the city. Everywhere we went, there were pictures of Nelson Mandela displayed on bulletin boards or hanging on buildings. Clearly, he was a national icon, but I also noticed that the city was in lock-down. There was barbed wire, security cameras and police cruisers everywhere. The windows and doors of homes and businesses had bars on them, which made them appear as if they were jails. It was a bit nerve wracking. I did not feel safe.
We returned to our hotel for lunch. I struck up a conversation with our server. I found out from him that there was great unrest in the city. Too many Black South Africans were mired in poverty. The server, although polite and careful with his words, suggested that the Apartheid caste system was still firmly in place. The lack of opportunity to climb out of poverty and the fact that economic power was still held firmly in the hands of the White South Africans resulted in frustration, crime and violence. Mandela’s “long road to freedom” had a long way to go. Mandela’s dream and the dreams of the Black South Africans were still very much a work in progress and, in the minds of many, that progress had slowed to a crawl.
Great people, like Nelson Mandela, dream big dreams. The ancient Prophet Isaiah dreamed of a “peaceable kingdom”, a world in which….
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together.
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like an ox.
War and exile, however, proved Isaiah’s dream of a peaceable kingdom to be a non-starter.
During Jesus’ lifetime, many Israelis who longed for freedom from Roman oppression embraced him when he re-invigorated Isaiah’s dream by proclaiming: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then, Jesus concluded by saying, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Sadly, most of those who followed Jesus watched him and their dream for freedom die on a Roman cross. They must have asked, “Saviors don’t die on crosses, do they?”
As we draw closer to the day that has been set aside to remember the life and times of Martin Luther King Jr., we will, once again, hear a lot of chatter about his dreams, one of which he cast in his famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. 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.” And yet, even the most optimistic of those who listened to Dr. King that day often found his dream for equality frustratingly illusive.
In our times, the unimaginable atrocities committed by ISIS in the Middle East and the terrorist attack in Paris last week, certainly put to rest any idea that our world resembles Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom. The people of North Korea or Syria might have trouble buying Jesus’ dream of the oppressed going free. No matter what your opinion of the shooting of a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri and the subsequent refusal of a grand jury to bring charges against the police officer who fired the shots, that tragedy calls into question the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream. Is the dream of equality that is “deeply rooted in the American dream” reserved only for some and not for others? Is equal justice under the law a figment of our imagination? Progress toward the achievement of too many great dreams must be graded as “incomplete”. Sometimes it even feels as if we are “progressing” backwards.
Just because too many big dreams remain unfulfilled, however, does not mean that we should stop dreaming them or give up trying to achieve them. Dreams do not have a life of their own. They will only be fulfilled if it is “within our hearts” to work toward achieving them. Dr. King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail: “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men (and women) willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.” Is it within our hearts to become co-workers with God in working to achieve the American dream of liberty and justice for all?
We cannot ignore big dreams in the hope that they will go away or delude ourselves into believing that it is somebody else’s job to achieve them. Big hearts achieve big dreams. If it is within our hearts to achieve our dreams, human progress is inevitable. Our dreams can come true, but only if we embrace King’s challenge, that as “co-workers with God”, the “time is ripe to do right.”