Bishop Wright: 0:00
What Dr. King dared to believe is that he dared to believe in the greatness of this nation. He defined that greatness in the I have a dream speech. Right, and it has to do with justice, freedom and dignity. He dared to believe that we were great enough to do things like border security and treat people with dignity who are asylum seekers. He dreamed to think we could walk into bubble gum at the same time right, that is the measure of a great nation.
This is For People with Bishop Rob Wright. Welcome to For People with Bishop Rob Wright. I’m Melissa Rau, your host, and this is a conversation inspired by For Faith, a weekly devotion sent out every Friday. You can find a link to this week’s For Faith and a link to subscribe in the episode’s description. How’s it going today, Bishop?
Bishop Wright: 0:55
Morning, morning Doing well, thanks.
Today we are discussing your devotion that you did in honor of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, yeah, who we will be celebrating on Monday, the 15th, I think, right.
Bishop Wright: 1:10
Yeah, his actual birthday yeah.
Yeah, you called the devotion more than a dream, yes, which I really appreciate, because Dr. King didn’t just have a dream, or perhaps he did a big, bold dream, but it certainly wasn’t dreamy.
Bishop Wright: 1:26
Yeah, yeah. Well, I think that the temptation has been since 1963 to only talk about the last couple of minutes of the sermon and not talk about the substance of the dream. So it’s more than a dream, and what concerns me, frankly, is that when our prophets are dead a while, then people start inscribing their sort of vagrant thoughts on top of these prophets. And here’s where I want to be more of a literalist. First time you’ll ever hear me say this, I want to be more of a literalist. I want to actually look at the words that he wrote that led up to that final poetic flourish that has captured our imagination for almost 60, some odd years, or 61 years. So what is the substance of the dream? And I think that’s what we need to talk about, because that’s the timeless piece. We don’t have to be asleep to sort of catch this vision. In fact, if it was in fact a dream for him, I’m more concerned what he did when the alarm went off in the morning, because I mean, it’s about bringing dreams to life, manifesting. We’re in the season of Epiphany in the Episcopal Church, so what was the manifestation of the dream? And I think that’s where the rubber hits the road.
So, bishop, in your estimation, I’m wondering if you can share some of the trap that we’ve fallen into in reducing his words. How has that lived out? Can you be a bit more specific?
Bishop Wright: 3:05
I’ll try. I think it’s a very human thing to round off the edges of our, of our men and women who have come and brought a clean, crisp word from God about dignity, injustice and freedom and equity. Those messages are hard to square with the status quo. We do it with Jesus. God made us in God’s image and then we turn around and return to favor to God and start making God in our image. So Jesus has been dead 2,000 years ago and so, like Thomas Jefferson, we take the parts of the gospel we want and leave the rest aside. And we do that with Dr. King every year. And so what he was really talking about was systemic change in this democracy. I think we don’t talk about his intellect nearly enough and his deep commitment, deep, deep commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And so, out of his deep commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ and his profound respect for our republic, he called us to our better selves. He called us to our more whole selves, our selves. That thirst after justice and his eloquence just made it ring in our ears. And so he is to be regarded, continually regarded, as someone who loves America and wants the best for America Not only America, but for the world. I go all over the world. I’ve traveled all over the world like so many, and Dr King, even though he was a short man in stature, his shadow looms large over lots of places, and people point back to him as someone who found the moral courage to speak power, to speak to power, and so he continues to need to be really regarded. It’s a shame to me that at most of our seminaries we don’t have classes that take us down deep into his work, because down deep into his work, I think there’s so many lessons to learn. This son of the South you know. This son of the church this you know. He was the fourth generation of Christian pastors in his family. I mean, he learned everything that he shares with us sitting on the front row of his daddy’s church.
Mm-hmm. I you know it strikes me I was thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King and I was thinking of the word segregation that he did a lot in the civil rights movement to undermine and to overturn, and what I think I love most about him as his witness and an example to living life is that he was about integration.
Bishop Wright: 6:01
He integrated what he knew of the Bible and of Jesus’ life, and he lived it and integrated it in a way that toppled oppression.
Bishop Wright: 6:11
Well, he did, and you know I’ve told the story all the time and so perhaps I hope I’m not redundant. But you know, when he goes to Montgomery, you know to be a pastor, he hasn’t finished his dissertation, he’s newly married, he’s got a brand new little baby and what they thought they were hiring at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama was, you know, a sort of a middle-class young guy which he was educated, guy, which he was eloquent, which he was a wonderful pedigree which he had, but someone who would be less active than the former pastor of that congregation. They were looking for someone who was not going to be so confrontational with segregation and with lynching and with rape and with inequity in the justice system in Montgomery Alabama. And so I love the fact that Dr. King represents sort of God’s mischievous sense of humor. There are documents to be read that give us a sense that they were looking for just a squarely middle-class guy to come and say the nice words and words of comfort and good words to the middle-class black population of Montgomery. But lo and behold, God had something else in mind. So when he gets in town, you know this whole idea of desegregating the bus, you know the bus companies and the bus service was already actually on the ground and alive, and it was already understood to be very dangerous. And so you know, when the moment comes, actually Dr. King doesn’t step forward to lead the movement, he doesn’t take the other people’s step back and they feel like, well, let’s let this out of town or catch all the hell and perhaps even catch his own death. And so he stands and there are lots of, lots of documents and lots to read about how he really was not some Christian spiritual super athlete, but he was a man who worried about his wife and his family and who wondered if he had the stuff to do the work that was in front of him. And I think that’s one of his best gifts to us is that we were looking at someone who’s flesh and blood not a perfect man, but someone who took strength from his wife, someone who took strength from his friends, someone who wavered in his faith, someone who cried out to God and wondered where God was in all of this, someone who was afraid of his life, someone who even wondered if violence was a better path early on in his ministry. And so here we have a living, breathing sort of a man, you know, christian baptized person struggling with all these ideas in Jesus’s ministry, and not the least of which was this non violence piece with Gandhi, and really was every day experimenting with these thoughts, and our nation is better for it.
And we’ll be right back after a short break. Welcome back to four people. Bishop, you highlighted words like urgency. Justice, freedom and dignity sustained King’s vision for his vocation while also being his desperate plea to a nation. Those are big words.
Bishop Wright: 9:46
And before the break we were kind of talking about integration and you kind of highlighted that he was invited to be the preacher man, to not rock the boat.
Bishop Wright: 9:56
Yeah right, Exactly.
I’m just curious what our words like urgency, justice, freedom and dignity, when used properly? How are they boat rockers?
Bishop Wright: 10:07
Yeah, well, first of all, those are Dr. King’s words. You know they’re in quotation and so I lay those words beside. You know, the last couple of minutes of his speech, the I have a dream speech, because that was the substance of the dream. The dream was, is that we’ve got to urgently be committed, right now, to justice, freedom and dignity for all. And you know he was saying that that is actually consistent with what we say about ourselves as a nation. These are the words of our founders, even though they themselves missed the mark in so many ways. These are nevertheless the words. And so, you know, what I like to say to preachers is that you’ve got to preach a gospel that is bigger than your life, right, and Dr. King was highlighting the fact that the founders of this nation use words that were bigger than their lives and their practice, and yet, nevertheless, these are noble truths that we ought to be moving the nation towards, and we realize we’ve got to stumble, you know, forward towards these things. That’s why the Constitution has amendments, is because we are thinking and better thinking all along. Democracy is evolving on our way to a more perfect union. So these are his words, and he just refuses to believe that a nation as great as ours should continue to live with some of its population and join the very benefits of this nation and the rest of us being kept in, you know, a squalor and poverty and ignorance. And so these are his words. Obviously, you know why these words are boat rockers is because for urgency around the ideas of justice, freedom and dignity to really flourish, we’ve got to decide as a nation that that’s what we want for all of our citizens. We’ve got to decide that there are going to be no outcasts in this America, that there are going to be opportunities that are equal for all of us. That has not been our history. Dr. King made it more true and can you know, going forward, that work still needs to happen, and so anytime you put the word justice and freedom and dignity up, that means that some are going to have to give up some of their privilege and others are going to sort of have to level up and to live into that. So you’re talking about a reorientation of our status quo, and that always gets profits killed.
Yeah, holy cow, that was a big old statement right there, Bishop.
Bishop Wright: 12:36
Always. I mean always. So why do we kill Jesus? Because his words were inconvenient. That’s why, and because we realize that as he gets to preaching, it starts to resonate with the people on the bottom.
Bishop Wright: 12:49
And then the people on the top are trying to accommodate this, and it changes life.
Well and right now. I mean you highlighted a hierarchy, right and. I feel like that’s what humans do, yeah of course. People in places.
Bishop Wright: 13:04
That I don’t think God does, and so when we talk about dignity, I think we’re talking about worthiness, and that we are all worthy and that no one person is more worthy than another, and I think we forget that.
Bishop Wright: 13:21
Well, we forget it, and then we don’t forget it. We actually weaponize it. We know what we’re doing. Look, you know. Look, let’s stop it right, the systems do what the majority of the people want them to do. Yeah, right, and so we haven’t forgotten anything. I think that there are some of us who enjoy a lot of benefits of the way the status quo works right now and that’s how it’s going to go, until something from the bottom and from the margins, you know, brings forth these ideas in a way that mobilizes lots of people. Look, what was dangerous about Dr. King was he was mobilizing blacks. He was mobilizing the Jewish community. He was friends with lots of people. It was interfaith and interdenominational, or rather ecumenical. He was connecting with anti-war young people of every color and every socioeconomic sort of background. He was challenging the president on our you know our commitment to the Vietnam War, and so he was destabilizing the Union, you know, in favor of this other reality, where we forsake militarism and we forsake hatred and segregation and where we share the bounty of this nation, you know, extravagantly with people, and that causes some people a great amount of pain, and so they want that stopped. We forget that Dr. King’s longest speech was not at the march on Washington in 63, but rather it was April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church, where he challenged America and all of us and those in power to live differently and to and to, and he broke ranks with with a lot of preachers that you know. A lot of the Christian community gave him up when he started talking about anti-war and he is assassinated one day, I’m sorry, one year to the day of that speech. I’m not a big conspiracy theorist, but but one does wonder. You know, as long as he’s talking about bathrooms and buses, he’s causing some uncomfort but he’s, as a general matter, safe. But when he goes to the very heart of things, the very heart of our republic, then he becomes, like Jesus, inconvenient and expendable.
Well, you concluded with these words. You said let’s let King have the last word here. And I have to say you have his quote and I’m going to say it now and I’m a little embarrassed because I want to talk about it, okay, so I don’t want to just let it sit there and be a last word, because it’s big and bold. He said the whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. And Bishop I was. I read that and over and over again and I thought gosh, maybe it’s one of all three. Is it more of one than the other? Is it a threat, a promise or a prophecy? I think it’s a prophecy. I think what, what do?
Bishop Wright: 16:46
prophets do. Prophets have the gift of pattern recognition and and prophets have some degree of intimacy with the divine. They love God and they love neighbor right, which is the fulfillment of a life with God. And so to look deeply into now, king was saying this is what I see on our horizon. We forget that peace comes as a consequence of justice. There is no peace that precedes justice, right. So when there is justice I mean this is the biblical idea of the covenant when there is justice, then all is well in the land, right. Until justice comes. Then we have this very thin veneer of convenience and access that we want to call peace. But when people are living in squalor even in 2024, when the immigrants who are picking our food and sending it to market don’t have fresh water or education for their children but live in the corners of our society, there’s no peace, no real peace. And in those of us who happen to have, you know, you can’t build the walls high enough for this thing to eventually. I mean it’s going to topple, eventually it’s going to implode, unless we decide that we are really committed to justice and equity for all people. You know, I was saying the other day in a sermon you know, what Dr. King dared to believe is that he dared to believe in the greatness of this nation, and he defined that greatness in. I have a dream speech, right, and it has to do with justice, freedom and dignity. He dared to believe that we were great enough to do things like border security and treat people with dignity who are asylum seekers. He dreamed to think we could walk into bubble gum at the same time. Right, that is the measure of a great nation that extends education, that extends healthcare, that extends all these sorts of things to all of its citizens. And people worry. Well, are we talking about a welfare state? Dr. King was never talking about a welfare state. What we was talking about was unfettered access. What he was talking about was a level playing field, and I still believe that that is the definition of a great nation. Right, and so if we are great, right, then we will busy ourselves with these ideas of justice, freedom and dignity. If we are not, then heaven help us that there will be a revolt, and there is a revolt. It’s happening right now. Look at the unrest in the nation, right, and we’ve got, you know, these political hacks of every sort of you know, on every side, who are more interested in gerrymandering and reelection than they are in solving problems, and this is true, and this is true in the red, and this is true in the blue. You know, and to them Dr. King would say careful, careful. You are colluding with all of the forces that will destabilize this nation.
Wow, I have so many questions and so much follow up. I just I wonder if we need to take it to next week, because I’m really honestly. I’m thinking about right and wrong and people’s judgment and living in, you know, as a black and white thinker, which I think I am naturally disposed, predisposed to be, and yet I feel like that’s the trap is when we can vilify people and make our own preconceived notions about right and wrong.
Bishop Wright: 20:41
Yeah, Well, look, here’s what I would suggest. Allow me to do something I don’t usually do on the podcast. Allow me to assign some homework.
Bishop Wright: 20:51
So I think that what I would like people to do, if people are up for it, is go back and read the entire speech. I have a dream and of course we swoon at the end the curvaceous slopes of California, the heightening alligainies, all of that we swoon and we should. It’s a poet, it’s beautiful poetry that captures our imagination and provides us inspiration. But read all the words prior to that. And if you want extra credit on this assignment, then read Dr. King’s speech at the Riverside Church on April 4th 1967. And you know we’ve got smart listeners. Let them decide for themselves. Is King a partisan hack? Is he just some sort of you know, some sort of faint-minded or weak-minded dreamer? Or does he have us dead to rights and is he calling us to a place where there’s not condemnation for anybody but redemption for all if we take action?
Hmm, that certainly is a dream.
Bishop Wright: 21:55
Yeah, more than a dream.
More than a dream. Indeed, indeed. Bishop, thank you so much, and listeners, we’re grateful to you for listening to For People. You can follow us on Instagram and Facebook at Bishop Rob Wright. Please subscribe, leave a review and we’ll be back with you next week.