Between 1955 and 1965, King marshaled the best of the American dissenting tradition and the prophetic black church to achieve traditional citizenship rights for black Americans. Indeed in 1957, he spoke of the challenges of a new age. No matter the difficulty of the hour, King knew that the foundations of American apartheid had been shaken as former slaves began to understand themselves as true agents of change. In fact, he stated that Americans of all colors stood between two worlds—the dying old and the emerging new, and the ever-pressing nature of the present stood only as a dramatic rehearsal for a new world desperately trying to come into being.
King dared then to imagine a better world. And imagination here is not some adolescent fantasy. No…the imagination is that moral faculty, which allows us to see beyond the opacity of our current condition; to spy the dim outlines of a possible future unharnessed from the problems of now; the imagination allows us to muster the courage to proceed in pursuit of ends that are not readily seen; it is the prerequisite for a faith that encourages and emboldens us to run ahead of the evidence. What the great American philosopher William James describes as that “readiness to act in a cause the prosperous issue of which is not certified in advance.”
For King, the challenges of a dawning age required a recognition of a shrinking world—that globalization had produced what he called a geographical togetherness, and that this togetherness very much needed a spiritual grounding (where our moral and spiritual genius would make possible a beloved community). He insisted that this new age required of us a commitment to excellence and understanding good will—that the virtues of love, mercy and forgiveness ought to stand at the center of our lives. A world so fallen by the tragic choices of finite creatures like ourselves called for reconciliation, King argued, but it also had need of redemption such that a beloved community could come into being.
King understood that in moments of challenge and crisis—in those darkest of hours—the dawning of a new age is only made possible by those who would dare to imagine a new world. Not those who rest on a blessed assurance. Not those who assume that everything will be taken care of in the end. No. King understood that any new age obliges us to work. As he said in 1957,
I have talked about the new age which is fastly coming into being. I have talked about the fact that God is working in history to bring about this new age. There is the danger, therefore, that after hearing all of this you will go away with the impression that we can go home, sit down, and do nothing, waiting for the coming of the inevitable. You will somehow feel that this new age will roll in on the wheels of inevitability, so there is nothing to do but wait on it. If you get that impression, King noted, you are the victims of an illusion wrapped in superficiality. We must speed up the coming of the inevitable.
Daring to imagine a better world is not then a passive act; it is a “readying of the self” to engage courageously, passionately, and intelligently for transformative action. King understood this.
In his last Sunday sermon on March 31, 1968 at the National Cathedral in Washington DC, King took as his text a passage from the Book of Revelation: “Behold I make all things new, former things are passed away.” As he stood on death’s doorstep, he dared to imagine a better world. But he understood that some of us were sleepwalking, and he offered a lesson in “remaining awake through a great revolution.” Much work needed to be done. Racism, poverty, and militarism threatened the soul of the nation. King’s prophetic voice called us to attention. And here we are today. My twelve-year-old son will witness an historic moment on Tuesday. He will see a black man take the office of president. My soul will smile, and I am sure a few tears will fall. A new age is dawning. But I must muster the courage in that moment of joy to take a good look around me. To ask my son to look to the least of these—to those who dream darkly, who are living in the shadows—and insist that he find greatness in loving and serving them. King’s words come to mind at a time when the nation seems lost in the illusion that we have now gotten shut of our racial sins. We must still speak truth to power. We must still imagine the world anew. As King said on that Sunday morning:
On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question—is it politic? Vanity asks the question—is it popular? Conscience asks the question—is it right? There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.
Yes. We celebrate our new president. We revel in the historic nature of the moment. But our work has just begun. We must dare to imagine a better world.