Thursday, May 04, 2006

Seek ye first...

I was teaching this speech the other day, trying to explain how it functioned, how it was put together, when I realized just how radical it's premise is. It's radical in a way we easily overlook.

King starts with the premise we all accept (which is its real genius; King begins with what we know, and moves us toward what we should know): law creates order, and the two together, given world enough and time, produce justice.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity. But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free.
The first half of the speech is built on that premise. For King, it is the Emancipation Proclamation that is the law, which comes imposing a new order, and in imposing that order, promises justice, finally, for slaves, for African Americans, for those who came to this country not illegally, but wholly unwillingly. That promise of justice, however, is unfulfilled: " hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free."

The Proclamation was issued 100 years ago, but the root is in the Constitution:

So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition. In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.
The promissory note was that law and order would lead inevitably and finally to justice; justice for once, and justice for all. But it didn't happen; and so King describes the frustration of 100 years of history, and the understanding that justice has been promised, and justice is still available, and that justice must be done:

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.
But King is not Malcolm X; he is not placing before the nation the either/or of peace or violence, of justice or anarchy.

The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
He makes a slow turn here, as he must, but the turn is quite clear,a nd it isn't just the turn of pacifism, of "turn the other cheek" and "bless those who curse you." It is a more radical turn than that. And it comes in the contrast between the opening of the speech, which we usually ignore, and the closing of the speech, which we usually praise and even bathe our memories in. It comes in the most radical call of all: justice first, and order and law will follow. It is, in the purest sense, the most democratic of sentiments.

We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" we can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
King does not bring them to Washington, D.C. to seize power, or enact more laws, or esatablish a new and improved legal order. He brings them to D.C. to teach them about justice. He brings them to D.C. to upend the American order, the one we are sure "tamed the West" and "forged a new country." He comes, not to praise Caesar, but to bury him. And bury him is exactly what King does.

Caesar represents law and order, the rule of the state, the control of the mass in what we know call (wrongly) a Hobbesian vision of imposing upon "the rule of nature, red in tooth and claw" the civilizing power of authority. Law first, taught Augustus Caesar, creates order. Piety, then (and Augustus was a master of promoting filial piety; James Dobson and Jerry Falwell could learn a thing or two from him; Peter Marshall and Rocbert Schuller didn't have a patch on Augustus in promoting the status quo based on the famliy and piety) seals the family into the social pact, and insures order at the most basic social unit, because the family follows the law. And from that does justice come? Well, certainly not the justice the Hebrew prophets would recognize. But with law establishing order, and order creating peace, is justice far behind? Perhaps we should ask the citizens of Omelas.

King turns those assumptions on their head, and does it so beautifully, so masterfully, we don't realize we've been had. We assume, even, that one day American law and American order will finally create King's vision of American justice; but King doesn't say that day will come through Congress:

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." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
That day will come through people enacting justice. Not demanding justice; that is still to play the game of law and order, of the belief tha only power matters, and only the power of the state enacted through law can impose the proper order that allows fragile, feeble, weak, and tremulous justice to begin to see the light of day, and even then only if justice creates the greatest good for the greatest number. But that is not justice at all: that is simply more law, and more imposition of order. And more force is not just; it is simply a greater effort at control over someone else. It is the conviction that there are circumstances under which we need not treat each other with love; but no such circumstances exist.

Which King understands; and so King's dream is a vision of justice first, which will give rise to a new and better order, and then, if necessary, laws for what is left over, for those who still reject justice.

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
King started talking about law, and about the order it was supposed to create, and about the justice it failed to provide. It is time to set aside that model, is King's proclamation, and seek first the kingdom of God, where the first are last, and the last first, and all are seen as equals. It is time to seek first justice; and all the rest will follow.

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring." And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
But freedom without law and order is precisely what we fear. Freedom without law and order is anarchy, is barbarism, is the antithesis of civilization. To establish freedom is precisely why we brought civilization to the "savages" of the American West; it is why we fought in the jungles of Vietnam; it is why we invaded Iraq. Because freedom is not possible without first establishing law and order. But King has another vision:

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
And there it is, but covered in such a sweet coating we don't even recognize what we have swallowed: law and order do not produce justice. If they did, the promissory note written to the African Americans would long ago have been paid in full. Justice is not a byproduct of law, and law is not necessary in order to impose order. The nature of humanity is not bestial, only held in check by power and reason. And the nature of the universe is to do justice, and love mercy. Freedom is rooted, not in power or in order, but in justice. Seek justice, and you will have freedom; seek justice, and you will establish order; seek justice, and you will not need to concern yourself with law.

That struggle is going on again. That struggle continues.

Fools tell themselves,
"There is no God."
Their actions are corrupt,
none of them does good.

The Lord looks down
to see if anyone is wise,
if anyone seeks God.

But all have turned away,
all are depraved.
No one does good,
not even one.

Are these evil-doers mad?
They eat up my people
like so much bread;
they never pray.

They should cringe in fear,
for God sits with the just.
You may mock the poor,
but the Lord keeps them safe.

If only a saviour would come from Zion
to restore the people's fortunes!
Then Jacob would sing,
and Israel rejoice.--Psalm 14

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