Vision or illusion?

As a word, “dream” does double duty, signifying that from which we must awake and that which must never die. The dreams of night, whether they bring delight or dread, dissipate at the dawn. The dreams of the day—to distinguish them from day dreams, when the soul saunters through dissipations—are the ideals and hopes that quicken our humanity. To abandon them would be an act of despair.

Martin Luther King Jr. called down our future when he told us,

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[T]hough we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He grew up a black boy in urban Baltimore, “naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” His new book, Between the World and Me (2015), is addressed to his son. It’s not written for whites, though all of America should read it. As a black man, he writes that the American Dream is not a vision. It’s an illusion.

I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world…I was sad for all those families. I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you (11).

 

I was raised in the American Dream. Coates describes my childhood. I have no right to respond that the dream is vision rather than illusion, because I have never lived a day outside the dream. Instead, I must ponder what it means to stand rejected and to know that my accuser is right.

I could not retreat into the church and its mysteries. My parents rejected all dogmas. We spurned the holidays marketed by people who wanted to be white. We would not stand for their anthems. We would not kneel before their God. “The meek shall inherit the earth” meant nothing to me. The meek were battered in West Baltimore, stomped out at Walbrook Junction, bashed up on Park Heights, and raped in the showers of the city jail. My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos…. Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear connected the world out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets (28-29).

 

The Gospel is the good news of salvation, but it can be subverted by sin. As the word and work of God it cannot falter, cannot fail to be true, but as entrusted to us, it can, and often does, become something shallow, false in its superficiality. It can become the tonic we swallow to make ourselves feel better about the world, and, if the Gospel makes us content with this world, it becomes a poison we pour down the throats of others. The Gospel Jesus lived was whole, complete, consummated on the cross. The Gospel we live is ever something partial, something scattered by sin.

When the Gospel is authentic, it is a call, an offer, which is rejected. It is spurned by some because it cannot coexist with the sin of the world. Come the end of time, it will still not be the common creed of earth, at least not in the depths of the human heart. Jesus told his disciples

the Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed, and rise after three days (Mk 8:31).

 

The servant of God must suffer in the world, because the world is alienated from God. It is fallen from its source, disfigured, disgraced, and it is bitter in its solitude. Isaiah described the fate of the holy one in this world:

I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.
 
The Lord God is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame (50: 6-7).

 

Ta-Nahesi Coates is right. Or, at the least, this old Cub Scout cannot correct him. To be black in America is to know the dream is an illusion from which one must wake. The world isn’t going to change on its own. No amount of education or social activism will redeem it. It needs a savior.

But the savior we preach was crucified, and there is no salvation apart from his cross.

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it (Mk 8: 34-35).

 

If you’ve never been persecuted for righteousness, if you’ve never been rejected because of your Gospel, then you must ask yourself—really ask yourself because if the answer comes too readily the question hasn’t been seriously posed—what is your faith? Vision or illusion? When it’s the latter, we all lose. And “for the many” it’s a bit of both. Hence the struggle.

Isaiah 50: 5-9a  James 2: 14-18  Mark 8: 27-35

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 2 months ago
In the 1950’s, median income rose nearly 30%. The 1950’s top federal income tax rate was 91%. In the 1960’s, median income again rose nearly 30% with a top federal income tax rate of 70% or higher. The current top federal income tax rate is 39%. Median income today is lower than that of 1970. Discretionary income of an early 2000’s two income family is less than an early 1970’s single income family. The US has the highest rate of child poverty in the developed world. Projections are 50% of US children will depend on food stamps at some time before they reach 18.

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