Shattered dreams.

I’m periodically blogging about Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love. Each post can be read independently, but if you’re interested, previous installments are here.

And what better way to mark the end of Confederate History Month (aka April), than to get back into Dr. King!

Chapter nine – Shattered dreams

I’ve spent some time away from Strength to Love, and yesterday had a kind of first-day-of-school excitement to get back into it. And yet — chapter nine? Meh.

Yeesh, I can’t tell you how wrong it feels to write that.

Dr. King has become something of a guru for me. I refer to this book all the time now, quoting him to myself and others, looking for ways to integrate his thinking into my life and worldview. Just today, I was (of all things) Tweeting with him in mind (no – really! Sort of: WWMLKT?).

But “Shattered dreams” says little that is particularly unusual or unusually phrased, boiling down to this quote (which is repeated in two or three iterations): “We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.”

And while this is a beautiful idea, it’s similar to something King said better in an earlier chapter: “The transformed nonconformist… recognizes that social change will not come overnight, yet he works as though it is an imminent possibility” — it’s not enough to have hope, after all. You have to take action from within that hope — even if the action is merely getting up and facing the day without bitterness or fatalism.

At the point of the finite/infinite quote, though, I felt myself responding more, as King began to speak of those who lived all those long, horrific years as slaves in the American South:

Some of us, of course, will die without having received the realization of freedom, but we must continue to sail on our charted course…. This was the secret of the survival of our slave foreparents. Slavery was a low, dirty, and inhuman business…. Yet in spite of inexpressible cruelties, our foreparents survived…. They had no alternative except to accept the fact of slavery, but they clung tenaciously to the hope of freedom. In a seemingly hopeless situation, they fashioned within their souls a creative optimism that strengthened them.

First, it’s worth noting that it was only when  I started taking notes that I went: “Hold on. Dr. King was one of those people who died ‘without having received the realization of freedom’…!” He has come so alive to me in this reading/writing process that, somehow, the man I read on the page has come decoupled from the martyr who is no longer with us. What an odd thing to be surprised by.

Second — and somewhat more to the point — I am really fascinated by King’s regular return to the word “creative.” I wish I could ask him what he means by “creative optimism.” At other times, he’s talked about “creative, redemptive goodwill for all men,” said that the Peace Corps “will succeed if it seeks creatively to do something” with the world’s underprivileged, and written that “God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice.” On and on. “Creative” is in every chapter, at least once, I think — searching for it on Google Books turns up 19 hits, in a book with 15 chapters and a preface.

The idea, I think, is to build up, rather than tear down; to act, rather than to wait to be acted upon; to seek the ingenious and new, rather than the traditional but unproductive.

But I sense that there’s something else, just beyond my grasp, something he had in mind all the many times he used that one word. I find myself reading these passages over and over, turning them over in my mind. What did King see when he reached into the inordinate depths of his rhetorical bag and pulled out “creative” again, and again, and again?

Yet: Just as I was beginning to be drawn in again, I very quickly ran into a problem — one that’s come up before, if to a lesser degree, as I’ve worked through these readings: The man was, honest-to-goodness, a Christian.

St. Paul was a spiritual role model for Dr. King, and his dream to bring the gospel to Spain serves as the frame for this chapter, because it was a dream that was to be shattered. Paul never gets to Spain, instead living out his final days in a Roman prison — indeed

his life was a continual round of disappointments. On every side were broken plans and shattered dreams…. His gallant mission for Christ was measured ‘in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers….’

[And yet] as Paul testified, in life or in death, in Spain or in Rome… ‘all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.’

And, of course, aside from anything else, even if Paul were not a spiritual hero, Dr. King quite genuinely held to Christ:

Our capacity to deal creatively with shattered dreams is ultimately determined by our faith in God…. God through Christ has taken the sting from death by freeing us from its dominion. Our early life is a prelude to a glorious new awakening, and death is an open door that leads us into life eternal.

And here I am, The Reader: a Jew who’s not only made a bit nervous by the historical figure of Paul (as Jews often are), but a Jew who became a Jew when she rejected the theology (and Savior) of which King speaks.

Perhaps this is to be expected when one is reading a collection of what are, after all, sermons. Perhaps one unwittingly wanted her guru to be speaking directly to her personal heart at all times.

Next up: “How should a Christian view Communism?” — perhaps a more anthropological approach would be useful….


  1. Sorn Jessen

     /  May 4, 2010

    So, I imagine this is one of those cultural divides that I shouldn’t attempt to tackle but here goes. In my understanding the Christian conception of “creative power” for lack of a better word is bound up with the concept of redemptive grace. In the protestant tradition in which Dr. King was born up the principle conception is that “salvation” or that which sets a person on the path, but by no means determines the outcome, to slavation is the concept of grace.

    Most christians see the death of Christ as an everlasting Yom Kippour (hope I spelled that right) and the belief is that out of such a death came the “everlasting grace” which has the creative power to create a new world. The underlying theological justification comes from Paul in 2nd Corinthians: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” So in my mind at least there is an element of this Pauline theology in the writings of Dr. King. I think that when he uses the words creatively and creative there is an element of this conception of “grace” embodied within it.

    • Sorn Jessen

       /  May 4, 2010

      I hope that didn’t come off as too arrogant, or in an “I know this and you don’t” frame of mind. The evolution of christianity is interesting in itself, one part judaism, one part ancient hero myth, one part greek philosophy. However, being unaquainted with Judaism outside of brief readings of the mishna and the Gamara’s and a passing acquaintance with mamonides I’m not sure how to explain things without possibly giving offense or telling you things you already know. As always though thanks for reading.

      • Of course, technically? I’m not supposed to be here. The rules are the rules! After all.

        But I just wanted to say, right where everyone can see it, that there’s absolutely no need to worry. I’m grateful for this kind of input, and one thing I always enjoy about you (and dmf Hi dmf!) is the respect you bring to the conversation. These are things that had not occurred to me, and I’m always grateful for more information. Knowledge is power, or, at the very least, very important.

        So – thanks!

        (Oh, and usually it’s “Yom Kippur,” but given that it’s really in Hebrew, your spelling was probably just as accurate!)

  2. dmf

     /  May 4, 2010

    i think that you are coming to the stumbling block that i was trying to raise earlier in relation to mlk/christianity/st.paul and finding, even seeking, meaning in suffering and death. this kind of martyrdom complex is deeply disturbing to non-apocalyptic/eschatological humanists like myself. i was reminded of this again last night watching the new pbs american experience where king talked of a embracing a death that brings meaning:
    christianity on marxism is a huge post-liberation theology topic and one of the more interesting orthodox responses comes from the catholic theologian johannes baptist metz. a pretty readable “post-modern” take can be found in john caputo’s what would jesus deconstruct and for a pragmatist take on creativity/religion and civil/human rights check out eddie glaude’s works.

  1. Martin Luther King – not really all about me. | Angry Black Lady Chronicles
%d bloggers like this: