I have seen the Promised Land.
50 years. I remember thinking that if you could look back ten years, you were already old. But, I now remember too much.
50 years today people in Britain were waking up to the news that Dr Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis, having just delivered a speech that suggests in hindsight that he knew his end was coming. He got cheered to the rafters when he said: “I have been to the mountain top … I have seen the Promised Land”. But, like Moses who three thousand years ago peered over into the land for which he had given his life, he died before he could enter it.
Listening again to this immensely moving speech from Memphis, what is powerful about Martin Luther King isn’t just the vision he had – a vision that denied the power of the reality he experienced every day – but his ability to fire the hearts and imaginations of people … to get them to look beyond the limitations of their society and its injustices and have their imagination grasped by a vision and a hope that would not let them go.
It is the power of language and music. Dr King almost sang his evocation of liberation for black people in the United States. The Civil Rights movement was fired by the melodies and words of spirituals, the language of the Old Testament prophets whose poetry haunted their imagination, fired their courage and coloured their defiance of ‘the way the world is’. God was awake to the suffering of his people, and freedom was coming – one day, even if not to-day.
“Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord” were the last words spoken by Dr King to a crowd before his death at the age of 39. Here he dares to suggest that the glory of the Lord is not about some other-worldly realm of pious fantasy, but is to be glimpsed coming to us right in the heart of human suffering and confusion. Dr King had found his own heart and mind captured by a love that would not let him go – by a God who gets down and dirty in the muck and bullets of the real world we all recognise.
50 years. Yet, those words – and his delivery of them – still resonate, still sing out in defiant hope. The now is not the end.
This is the script of Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2 on 4 April 2018 by Bishop Nick Baines.
Enjoy James Taylor’s tribute below!