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Seeing Beyond the Dream Speech

Recovering Martin Luther King’s Vision of the World House 

by Dr. Gary Percesepe, BPFNA Coordinating Director from July 2004-July 2006 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, a year to the day that he gave his historic speech at the Riverside Church in New York City, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence," announcing his opposition to the Vietnam War. Ten days before his assassination, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel introduced King to an assembly of rabbis in this way:

"Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us […] Martin Luther King, Jr. is a voice, a vision, and a way. {…] The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of Dr. King."

Responding to this prophetic words, scholar-activist Vincent Harding writes, in his book Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero,

"[I]f there is even a chance that Rabbi Heshel was correct, that the un-tranquil King and his peace-disturbing vision, words, and deeds hold the key to the future of America, […] for scholars, citizens or celebrants to forget the real man and his deepest implications would be not only faithless, but also suicidal."

Strong words. Yet it appears, tragically, that Harding’s warning has not been heeded. Celebrants and citizens on the anniversary of his birth and the holiday that honors his memory too often forget the real man. They do not probe the deepest implications of his thinking.

They remember the "Dream Speech" of 1963 and may even be acquainted with the "Letter From A Birmingham Jail," but ignore the Vietnam Speech of 1967, and the "World House" chapter in his book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, published also in 1967. The "World House" chapter of Dr. King’s last book is based upon his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, delivered at the University of Oslo, Norway on December 11, 1964. King worked for nearly a month on that Nobel Prize speech, and the importance that he attributed to it may be seen in the fact that he places it at the conclusion of a book that describes the enormous challenges facing the U.S. Many scholars regard "The World House" as his most important single speech. Why then, has this essay been ignored by celebrants and citizens?

My friend Eugene Rivers, black Pentecostal pastor and founder of the Azusa Christian Community and the Ten Point Coalition, has little patience for what he calls "these rosy, misty eyed remembrances" of Dr. King that America ritually engages in every January, cuing up the twenty second sound bite of the Dream Speech and convincing ourselves that we all loved Dr. King and all is well, and I’m OK and you’re OK and everybody is OK. Everything is not OK. Rivers has a biting critique of the uses and abuses of these kinds of events that we are engaged in here in Granville this weekend, and I will spare you the details, which are pretty hair raising for white liberals, but the upshot of his critique is this:

Eugene Rivers believes 1) that Martin Luther King’s dream of the beloved community was predicated upon a fundamental misreading of the meaning, politics, and history of the African in the United States; and 2) that this is why we have this incredible impasse in race relations almost 37 years after King’s death, reflecting the stubbornness of the ideology of white supremacy, a demonic and particularly nasty form of heresy that still thrives in the white churches of the U.S. I agree with Rivers’ second assertion, but reject the first, and this is yet another reason why, it seems to me, we must return to the World House speech. Ironically, it is the uninspiring uses of the inspiring Dream Speech that may be keeping us from the World House essay. To the extent that we keep the dream alive and bathe the dreamer in shimmering Hollywood images that keep reality at bay, we fail to do the work that translates dreams into reality and wind up with a nightmare. In "The World House," Dr. King calls us to do four things: 1) transcend tribe, race, class, nation, and religion to embrace the vision of a World House; 2) eradicate at home and globally the Triple Evils of racism, poverty, and militarism; 3) curb excessive materialism and shift from a "thing"-oriented society to a "people"-oriented society; and 4) resist social injustice and resolve conflicts in the spirit of love embodied in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence. He advocates a Marshall Plan to eradicate global poverty, a living wage, and a guaranteed minimum annual income for every American family. He urges the United Nations to experiment with the use of nonviolent direct action in international conflicts. The final paragraph warns of the "fierce urgency of now" and cautions that this may be the last chance to choose between chaos and community.

Let us consider each of these in turn. In the summary that follows I will rely heavily on Dr. King’s own words because they remain unsurpassed in their vision and their passion. King begins with a story: "Some years ago a famous novelist died. Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: "A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together." This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great "world house" in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace." 


Calling attention to the pernicious evil of racism, King says, "This is a treacherous foundation for a world house. Racism can well be that corrosive evil that will bring down the curtain on Western civilization." He cites the British historian Arnold Toynbee, who said that some twenty-six civilizations have risen upon the face of the earth. Almost all of them have descended into the junk heaps of destruction. The decline and fall of these civilizations, according to Toynbee, was not caused by external invasions but by internal decay. They failed to respond creatively to the challenges impinging upon them. King concludes, "If Western civilization does not now respond constructively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historian will have to say that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all men." 


Poverty is the second grave problem that must be solved if we are to live creatively in our world house—poverty on an international scale. King stresses that there is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it. There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will. For King, the first step in the world-wide war against poverty is passionate commitment. All wealthy nations must see it as a moral obligation to provide capital and technical assistance to the underdeveloped areas. These rich nations, King believes, have only scratched the surface in their commitment. There is need now for a general strategy of support. How prophetic these words seem, in light of recent events in our world, particularly the devastation caused by the tsunami. Sketchy aid here and there will not suffice, King argues, nor will it sustain economic growth. There must be a sustained effort extending through many years. The wealthy nations of the world must promptly initiate a massive, sustained Marshall Plan for Asia, Africa and South America. King called for rich nations to allocate just 2 percent of their gross national product annually for a period of ten or twenty years for the development of the underdeveloped nations in order to take concrete steps toward conquering the ancient enemy, poverty.

He goes on to warn that the aid program that he is suggesting must not be used by the wealthy nations as a means to control poor nations. Such an approach, he believes, would lead to a new form of paternalism and a neo-colonialism which no self-respecting nation could accept. Ultimately, foreign aid programs must be motivated by a compassionate and committed effort to wipe poverty, ignorance and disease from the face of the earth. Ever mindful of the call of Jesus in the gospels, King states that, "Money devoid of genuine empathy is like salt devoid of savor, good for nothing except to be trodden under foot of men." He concludes this section with a stern warning and a call to repentance: The West must enter into the program with humility and penitence and a sober realization that everything will not always "go our way." We must not forget that the Western powers were the colonial masters. "The house of the West is far from in order, and its hands are far from clean." 


Militarism is the third problem that humankind must solve in order to survive in the world house. We must find a creative alternative to war and human destruction. King notes the irony that in an age of sophisticated science and technology we are still no safer. The world is full of stubborn ambiguities. One of the most persistent ambiguities we face is that everybody talks about peace as a goal, but among the wielders of power, peace is practically nobody’s business. King observes that, "Many cry ‘Peace! Peace!’ but they refuse to do the things that make for peace." In a word that still sounds remarkably contemporary, King states that defense budgets that are already bulging are nevertheless steadily increasing, "enlarging already awesome armies and devising ever more devastating weapons."

Despite international calls for peace the heads of all the nations come to the peace table armed to the teeth, "accompanied by bands of brigands each bearing unsheathed swords." King issues a devastating critique of the notion of "peace through strength," heard so frequently in the Reagan years with echoes in the present. When he hears the leaders of nations again talking peace while preparing for war, King says, "I take fearful pause." He takes aim at the Vietnam War, still raging as he wrote these words: "When I see our country today intervening in what is basically a civil war, mutilating hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese children with napalm, burning villages and rice fields at random, painting the valleys of that small Asian country red with human blood, leaving broken bodies in countless ditches and sending home half-men, mutilated mentally and physically; when I see the unwillingness of our government to create the atmosphere for a negotiated settlement of this awful conflict by halting bombings in the North and agreeing unequivocally to talk with the Vietcong—I tremble for our world. I do so not only from dire recall of the nightmares wreaked in the wars of yesterday, but also from dreadful realization of today’s possible nuclear destructiveness and tomorrow’s even more calamitous prospects."

Before it is too late, King warns, we must narrow the gaping chasm between our "proclamations of peace" and "our lowly deeds which precipitate and perpetuate war." Speaking directly of Vietnam, but with echoes of Iraq, King states that we are called upon to look up from the quagmire of military programs and defense commitments and read the warnings on history’s signposts. He quotes President John F. Kennedy: "Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind," and adds that wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete. "There may have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force, but the destructive power of modern weapons eliminates even the possibility that war may serve any good at all. If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war. In a day when vehicles hurtle through outer space and guided ballistic missiles carve highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can claim victory in war." He dismisses the idea of a so called "limited war" in a nuclear age with these words: "A so-called limited war will leave little more than a calamitous legacy of human suffering, political turmoil and spiritual disillusionment. A world war will leave only smoldering ashes as mute testimony of a human race whose folly led inexorably to ultimate death. If modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war, he will transform his earthly habitat into an inferno such as even the mind of Dante could not imagine." 


Finally, King calls for a sustained study of the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence which would include the study of the relations between nations. He is aware that nations have ancient habits to deal with, vast structures of power, and indescribably complicated problems to solve. But he cites the United Nations as the world organization best equipped to experiment with the use of nonviolent direct action in international conflict. True nonviolence, King says, is more than the absence of violence. "It is the persistent and determined application of peaceable power to offenses against the community—in this case the world community.

As the United Nations moves ahead with the giant tasks confronting it, I would hope that it would earnestly examine the uses of nonviolent direct action." King draws on Homer’s story of Ulysses to hammer home the importance of developing alternatives to war. In that epic tale pf Greek literature, you may recall, the Sirens had the ability to sing so sweetly that sailors could not resist steering toward their island. Many ships were lured upon the rocks, and men forgot home, duty and honor as they flung themselves into the sea to be embraced by arms that drew them down to death. Ulysses, determined not to succumb to the Sirens, first decided to tie himself tightly to the mast of his boat and his crew stuffed their ears with wax.

But finally he and his crew learned a better way to save themselves: They took on board the beautiful singer Orpheus, whose melodies were sweeter than the music of the Sirens. When Orpheus sang, who would bother to listen to the Sirens? In the same way, King argues that we must come to see that "peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war." The final section of King’s essay addresses the need for a revolution of values to accompany the scientific and freedom revolutions engulfing the earth. Following the thought of the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, King says that we must rapidly begin the shift from a "’thing’-oriented society to a ‘person’-oriented society." This revolution of values must go beyond traditional capitalism and Communism, King thinks. The solution is not to be found in either traditional capitalism nor in classical Communism. Each represents a partial truth. Capitalism fails to see the truth in collectivism. Communism fails to see the truth in individualism. Capitalism fails to realize that life is social. Communism fails to realize that life is personal. The good and just society is neither the thesis of capitalism nor the antithesis of Communism, but a socially conscious democracy which reconciles the truths of individualism and collectivism. A true revolution of values goes beyond capitalism and communism to the story of the Good Samaritan.

On King’s reading this story from Luke’s gospel is intended not merely as a call to individual compassion and personal transformation but is rather a ringing call to structural and systemic social change: "We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." A true revolution of values will address the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." A true revolution of values will not tolerate a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift.

The United States, King believes—the richest and most powerful nation in the world—has a responsibility to lead the way in this revolution of values. What prevents us from paying adequate wages to school teachers, social workers and other servants of the public to insure that we have the best available personnel in these positions which are charged with the responsibility of guiding our future generations? He answers: It is a lack of vision. "There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer. There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum—and livable—income for every American family. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from remolding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood." This kind of positive revolution of values, he argues, is our best defense against our enemies. War is not the answer.

Communism—could we not substitute here the word terrorism, to describe our enemies?—terrorism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. We must with affirmative action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of Communism (terrorism) grows and develops. A genuine revolution of values means we must have a higher loyalty than loyalty to our nation. There is a difference between patriotism and nationalism. "Our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional.

Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies." Such an ecumenism is grounded in love, says King. This call for a world-wide fellowship "that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation" is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all persons. Love is an often misunderstood and misinterpreted concept, but it has now become an absolute necessity for our survival. "When I speak of love," King says, "I am speaking of that force which all the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the First Epistle of Saint John: Let us love one another: for love is of God: and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love….If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us." King’s eloquent conclusion to the essay should be read in its entirety, and pondered: "We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The ‘tide in the affairs of men’ does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’

There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on….’ We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community." I would like to conclude my remarks by calling attention to the contrast between Dr. King’s vision and the current occupant of that other "big house," the White House. It would appear that we have these two visions to choose from, and they are vastly different. They represent stark contrasts in values. They offer the world two worldviews and two sets of agendas. The president offers us the vision of an Empire, bent on seeking unilateral world domination through absolute military, economic, and political superiority. How do we know? The administration told us so. In the National Security Strategy of the United States of America (available on the web at, a White House document released last September 20, 2002, the Bush administration acknowledged that America has become the world’s policeman and legislator, prepared to rule the world without the help of any other nations or the United Nations. As Walter Wink points out, in the United States Space Command document, "Vision for 2020," the administration claims that even outer space is subject to "full spectrum dominance" by the U.S. American empire. Bush has backed out of treaties like the ABM and Kyoto because he wants no check on his ambitions. He played the Iraq card by pretending to work through the UN and its inspectors, even though the decision apparently had been made the summer before to attack Iraq regardless of world opinion. He violated the Charter of the United Nations, which King saw as our best hope of international cooperation and of which our nation is a signatory, by launching preemptive wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, and threatening to do so elsewhere. Wink recalls how William Stringfellow spoke prophetically when he first called for the impeachment of Richard Nixon: when a president lies so flagrantly to his own people; when he tells us that he will not heed any protests in the street; when he, thus, pronounces the astonishing doctrine that the president is unaccountable to the American people, then ours has ceased to be a democracy and has become an empire. And this government has openly declared for empire.

In his essay, "Globalization and Empire," published in my book Politics & Religion and available at, Wink argues that when a nation aspires to empire it tends to become virulently evil, no matter how hard individuals may try to prevent it. The Gospels state clearly that Satan rules all the nations of the world (Matt. 4:9/Luke 4:6), and thus regarded the Roman Empire as diabolical and to be replaced by God’s domination-free order. Empires live from the lust for power, and that lust is insatiable. We today are in the grip of an administration that was fraudulently elected, Wink claims, an administration that lied about the reasons for dragging our nation into war, and is gutting vital civil liberties founded on the Constitution. It has manipulated our media and foreign governments with false information. It has ordered the indefinite detention of citizens and non-citizens alike without access to counsel, without being charged, and without opportunity to challenge the detention. It has used secret arrests and denial of public trials. It demonized the Iraqis even though that devastated country had no direct involvement in the bombing of the World Trade Center or al Qaeda. The President either lied about Iraq’s alleged possession of "weapons of mass destruction," or he himself was massively misinformed by his own intelligence branch—in either case, he is guilty of malfeasance in office, says Wink. And so we are presented with two visions: One of a nation that is second to none, unchecked and unaccountable to anyone; the other, the vision of a world house.

We are presented with two axes of evil: One of rogue states that threatens the world with WMD; the other an axis of racism, poverty, and militarism that keeps people mired in misery, divides and polarizes us, red against blue, rich against poor, white against black, straight against gay, us against the world, and thus threatens the world with extinction. And two strategies for ridding the world of evil: One by military action—overthrowing brutal regimes, using ever more advanced weaponry and so called "impenetrable" defense systems, and poverty initiatives that speak of "faith-based" initiatives yet ignore the prophetic call of the church and cynically downsizes government capacity to address social uplift, as in the recent proposed gutting of the governmental agency of housing, HUD—and the other, candidly addressing racial and cultural tensions, committing unconditionally to rid the world of the scourge of poverty and developing the capacity for nonviolent direct action in international conflicts. And finally, two sets of motivating forces to carry out the proposed strategies: One based on fear and hatred and the need to exercise the power of domination; the other based on compassion, love, and the quest for justice, values shared by all the world’s great religions. Chaos or community? The choice remains, but it is more urgent than ever that we respond in faith. It is time to heed the voice of the prophet. The church in time of war must take its stand and sound a clarion call: war is not the answer. And the empires of this world will not have the final word. In the meantime—and it is a mean time—let us not look back at September 11, 2001 and November 2, 2004 merely with regret, for as Brother John of Taize reminds us in his essay "One More Missed Opportunity" (also in Politics & Religion) regret is one of the least fruitful of emotions. "The road to wisdom consists rather in learning from our mistakes so that the next time the circle comes round we are ready to respond. This may well be a time for living the values we believe in—solidarity, compassion, openness, hospitality—beginning in the simplest events of our daily lives, trusting that, in the final analysis, the future is not prepared by the ‘movers and shakers’ who occupy the foreground of our TV screens, but rather by the hidden multitudes who work humbly and tirelessly for what they believe in."

The bible tells the true story about the end of empire. It is a story designed to encourage us in our faith. The Book of Revelation portrays the Roman Empire as a dragon, a monster from the deeps that must be destroyed and reconstituted along humane lines (chapters 12—13 and 17—19). But the last word is that the empire that we see annihilated in Revelation 19—20 nevertheless comes marching into the Holy City, where the tree of life stands, and the leaves of the tree are for "the healing of the nations" (Rev. 21:24—22:2). Theoretically, nations can be restored to their divine vocation which, like the economy, is to serve the general welfare. This theme of the healing of the nations is so important that the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America has made it the theme of its Summer Conference in 2005 (see Brother John of Taize concludes his essay, "One More Missed Opportunity" with the observation that the Christian Bible ends with a tale of two cities: Babylon and the New Jerusalem. Unlike their counterparts in the Hebrew Scriptures, these are not geographical locations separated by physical space. Like it or not, we are all residents of Babylon. But at the heart of Sin City there are many whose true home is God’s City. Our task then is to live as citizens of that other city, even if that means being mocked as idealists, rejected as troublemakers, or persecuted as disturbers of the peace. For despite appearances, we trust that Babylon’s victories are short-lived, that what will in fact prevail is that other "well-founded city, designed and built by God" (Hebrews 10:11). "Short-term prospects may indeed seem dim, but that is not a call to lose heart. A missed opportunity can act as a stimulus to search more deeply, to grow in realism without losing ideals, and so to be ready when another historical moment arises that calls for a creative and life-giving response." Amen.

Preached January 14, 2005, as part of the "King Fling Weekend" at First Baptist Church, Granville, Ohio.

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