Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

The Dream and The Nightmare

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Delivered on the Lord’s Day | January 20, 2002
National Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration, Morehouse College Chapel, 

 Genesis 37: 12-22

“Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. “Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns……”

Ever since an assassin’s bullet slammed into the skull of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King killing him while he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee some thirty three years ago, debate has ensued about whether his dream has or ever will become reality. We all remember those bright words, echoed in the bright sun on that bright, sunny day in Washington D. C. The words with their haunting, familiar resonation, still echo through the corridors of this nation. I have a dream.

There are those who believe that the dream has come to past. They corroborate this belief by pointing out the great strides blacks have made in all areas of American society. They remind us that there are more black doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs than ever before in our history and more black political representation than at any time since reconstruction.

On the local, county, state and national levels the number of black politicians has dramatically increased. Black cabinet representatives abounded in the Clinton Administration. They take pride in people such persons as Condolesa Rice and Colin Powell on the Bush leadership team. Those who believe the dream has succeeded say that blacks made more money than their parents thirty years ago and are generally far better off.

Those believing the dream has become a nightmare readily point to the rising numbers of the black underclass and unemployed. They speak of black on black crime, that teenage pregnancy and homelessness have increased exponentially; that 70 percent of all births in the African American community are of unwed mothers and fathers. They point to a prison population whose black male inmate enrollment exceeds the number of black male graduates from our black colleges and universities, and the disproportionate numbers of black men on death row.

Those believing the dream has become a nightmare bewail and lament how the advancements of a technological and technical society have left many blacks under skilled and under-employed and unemployable. Black journeymen and tradesmen have waned as African Americans are fast becoming the second largest minority population next to Hispanics.

They point out time and again how black displacement, dislocation and alienation have transformed a dream into a nightmare.

Let me say that both camps have cogent arguments about the state of black America since Dr. King’s death. There are the dreamers who have realized their dreams. And there are those whose dreams have turned to nightmares. There are those who have and those who have not. There are those living comfortably who have ascended the corporate ladder and those still living in the ghetto seeking Jacob’s ladder so they can escape the indignity of poverty and social desolation.

Like Joseph and Martin Luther King, Jr., they were dreamers; they started out dreaming in their higher selves; looking for a better life and a better world but have been sold out not by their brothers like Joseph but by their external adversaries; hopelessness, drugs, poverty, crime, under-education and outright despair. They have been taken captive by outside adversaries who have dashed their hopes and killed their dreams.

My intent today is not to argue the cogency of whether the dream is still the dream or the dream has become a nightmare. For different people they mean different things. In the realm of individual consciousness, each man and woman must determine for himself or herself whether Dr. King’s dream has become a reality. Looking out over the landscape of their lives, people themselves must answer the question of whether the dream is still dream or the dream has turned to nightmares.

We know that collectively for black Americans and all Americans the dream has yet to be fully realized. As long as there is poverty, injustice, racism, sexism, ageism, and other “isms” the beloved community which is the essence of Dr. King’s dream has not come to pass. As long as there are homeless and jobless and hopeless people in this great nation the dream has not become reality. As long as the gap between the haves and have not continues to widen the dream has not become reality. As long as innocent people languish among the prison population the dream is not yet reality. As long as the morbidity and mortality rates are higher for some than other groups in this country due to poverty and disease the dream has not become a reality. The dream has become a reality for some people but remains a nightmare for others. This we cannot deny in looking at American society as a whole.

For Dr. King, this dream must apply to all people black, white or other who are victims of the injustice in our land. Yes, we are concerned about the state of black America, but the larger concern is always for the state of America herself. What Dr. King envisioned in his dream was an America where all God’s children could enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness unencumbered and unhindered.

Furthermore, a more important concern for me is not whether that the dream symbolizes our success and the nightmare our failure. A more salient concern is not that the dream has become reality for some and not for others. The real concern is that the real nightmare is that some segments of our population have stopped dreaming altogether. It’s one thing to have a dream and then experience a nightmare where the dream itself goes awry. It’s another thing to experience the nightmare of never dreaming at all. The real nightmare is that some people in this country will never dream, will never ever hope again for a better life and a better tomorrow. The real nightmare is that some people have no dreams and therefore have nothing to live for or nothing to lose. The real nightmare is those who once had dreams but allowed the nightmare kill their dreams altogether. The great Howard Thurman once said, “So long as a man has a dream in his heart he can never lose the significance of living.”

The real nightmare is losing the dream, giving up on the dream, never dreaming at all or becoming so resigned to doom and failure that a man has no reason to live. The real nightmare is living wrapped in permanent defeat, living without hope, without belief in God and without belief in oneself to make this world a better place. So the real nightmare is no so much the dream not being realized as it is not dreaming at all and not striving or believing that dreams can be made true.

The experience of Joseph is so instructive for us today. Here was a young man full of dreams; full of the vitality and exuberance that goes with young minds and hearts so full of life and promise. “He was the youngest of his brothers and was given a coat of many colors because he had the favor of his father. He was young. He was smart. He was gifted. He had all the makings and trappings of success. But his brothers became jealous when he shared his dreams with them and boasted their power. Hearing his dream, his brothers believed that he would reign over them and thus became so envious they sold him into slavery in Egypt. While in Egypt Joseph encountered one catastrophe after another. He was put in charge of Potiphar, the captain of the Egyptian guard’s home. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph and he refused her advances. He was unjustly accused and put into prison. He interpreted the dreams of other inmates, and languished in prison for a long time. While in prison he was put in charge by the warden because he was so trusted and the story goes, after release from prison for accurately interpreting the dreams of Pharoah, he was later put in charge of all of Egypt and became the savior of the very brothers who sold him into slavery. Now they had fallen on hard times and came seeking refuge from their famine in Egypt. Joseph recognized them and became their savior and liberator.“

In reflecting how they wanted to destroy him for his dreams he reasoned, “They meant it for bad but God meant it for good,” Joseph became an agent of hope and redemption to the very people who sold him away. He experienced betrayal by loved ones, unjust persecution for a crime he did not commit; he was put in prison and then put in charge of the prison. The people he had helped to get out of prison forgot him and his sentence extended.

The story of Joseph is one of the most inspiring stories in all of scripture and one well worth repeating during these troubling times. What is most important about his story is not that he experienced the nightmare of being sold into slavery but that he never stopped dreaming. To stop dreaming our dreams can be the worst of all nightmares.

As I stated, we all experience hardship, trouble, trial, tribulation, suffering, loss and death. We all have our wilderness moments, our in the valley moments, our in the prison moments, our on the cross moments. As human beings we all experience some kind of betrayal or disappointment that threatens to dash and kill our dreams. This is not the real nightmare because in life and living we will experience these things. The real nightmare is when we lose hope and faith and joy and determination to press on because our dreams have been dashed. The real nightmare is to live without hope when things happened to us that give us no reason to hope. The real nightmare is to give up our dreams when they have been dashed, smashed and knocked about. Few things are worse than a man without hope. This is the greatest of all nightmares to have nothing for which to live; nothing to fight for, nothing to live for, nothing to die for, nothing to struggle for, nothing to stand for and nothing to love for. Joseph never stopped dreaming because he knew that to stop dreaming and to stop hoping that he would become a dead and useless soul.

Despite what Joseph experienced he never lost hope. Even in his worse nightmare he knew that nothing could be a greater nightmare than living without hope and faith.

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