Beyond I Have a Dream: Snakes and Doves

Posted: January 17, 2011 in Christianity, Holiday, Politics, Social Justice
Tags: , , , , , ,

I once read a scholar who advocated that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” Speech” should be banned in the United States for at least a decade. The scholar argued that the power the civil rights movement led by King had been sterilized by the granting of a state holiday in King’s honor. Surely, there is no greater way to fundamentally alter a revolution than to sanction it with a government stamp of approval (see Constantine and Christianity). The scholar further made a case that King’s message had been distilled to a sound bite of the “Dream” speech and believed that if “I Have a Dream” was temporarily banned, perhaps Americans would actually listen to and read King’s other words. Perhaps the U.S would remember that King was not simply one day on the Washington mall and now a day off, but a prophet in the mold of the Hebrew Bible, standing in the gaps of social injustices affecting not only Black, but Brown, Red, Yellow and White citizens alike who were being oppressed due to their low socioeconomic status, suffering through poverty and losing their sons in Vietnam.

I felt the argument was compelling and had to reconcile my appreciation for Dr. King with the reality that my own awareness of MLK was his “Dream” speech and brief excerpts of his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Wanting to read more of Dr. King, I tracked down a compilation of his sermons entitled “Strength to Love” copyrighted in 1963. The book quickly joined the ranks of C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” and Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” as books I never can finish because the information and ideas contained within require copious amounts of time to process and incorporate.

One of the sections of Dr. King’s book I have read repeatedly is a sermon entitled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” Based on Jesus’ statement, “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” in Matthew 10:16, the chapter begins the book and beautifully illustrates the plagues of mankind, both in the 60’s and today, while pointing to the character of God and Jesus’ third way teachings on nonviolence for the solution.

Dr. King opens by noting that a “strong man holds in a living blend strongly marked opposites” and acknowledging that men rarely achieve such a balance of opposites, finding it difficult to be simultaneously a realist and an idealist, or humble and self-assertive at the same time. However, the truth remains that “life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony” and remarks that “truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two.”

Extremes are rarely useful and most truth cannot be categorized in black and white despite our frequent attempts to do so. This is not to say that absolute truth does not exist, but that from our limited perspective truth is usually discovered in the messy gray of life, even should we refuse to acknowledge it. This is not because God is not clear, but because our own judgment is so frequently clouded. We all readily testify that our enemies are not completely in the right, but often miss that neither are we. Therefore, we also miss the truths that can be learned when we allow our enemies to become our teacher.

Dr. King noted that “Jesus recognized the need for blending opposites. He knew that his disciples would face a difficult and hostile world… He knew that they would meet cold and arrogant men whose hearts had been hardened by the long winter of traditionalism. So he said to them, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.” And he gave them a formula for action, ‘Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.’ It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects.” Dr. King added we must “combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.”

Speaking of the need to embody the tough minded characteristics of the snake, Dr. King stated, “Who doubts that this toughness of mind is one of man’s greatest needs? Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.” I believe King’s insights nearly fifty years ago remain true as our families, organizations and churches are largely vacant of leaders demonstrating strong critical thinking skills.

In yet another glimpse of the future, Dr. King pointed out that man’s tendency toward being soft minded is seen in the way we cower before and obey the advertising industry, purchasing products based on exposure and perceived status over quality. Dr. King also implicated the press in taking advantage of the gullibility of the public and recognized the sad reality that “Few people have the toughness of mind to judge critically and to discern the true from the false, the fact from the fiction.” I shudder to think what the Reverend may have said about our current entertainment-driven “news” media and the ease with which most of us have been herded into opposing political pens and taught to hate the other side without ever evaluating the shepherd’s motives.

Dr. King observed this same lack of serpent tough-mindedness manifests in people’s submission to baseless superstitions and pointed out the root of the soft mind is the fear of change. “The softminded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.” King acknowledged that this soft minded fear of change often invades religion and causes the church to sometimes reject truth “with a dogmatic passion.” Reverend King noted that some in the church view any historical or literary criticism of the Bible as blasphemous and that such members have revised the Beatitudes to read, “Blessed are the pure in ignorance: for they shall see God.” Dr. King further argued such ignorance has led to a perceived conflict between science and religion instead of viewing the respective methods as complimentary of each other.

Always advocating for equal rights, Reverend King commented it is the toughminded who examine facts before reaching conclusions and the softminded who are prone to believe that minorities are inferior because they frequently “lag behind in academic, health, and moral standards” rather than recognizing such symptoms as products of discrimination. While Dr. King faced an overt racism in the South, an institutional racism continues to pervade our society, bureaucracy and economy offering different opportunities to folks based on their “pedigree” and appearance.

Dr. King declared that a “nation or a civilization that continues to produce softminded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.” But the success of a nation is not solely based on the “cultivation of a tough mind” as King reminded us that the Gospel “also demands a tender heart.” Dr. King reflected that to be toughminded but hard hearted leaves one “cold and detached” never truly loving and never experiencing the “beauty of friendship, because he is too cold to feel affection for another and is too self-centered to share another’s joy and sorrow. He is an isolated island.” King continued that this tough minded but compassionless soul “gives dollars to a worthwhile charity, but he gives not of his spirit.”

Jesus frequently condemned men of such character and I am ashamed to find myself in this group, perhaps able to think critically, but frequently without an intimate relationship and showing little desire and effort in developing such. Dr. King wrote that to “have serpentlike qualities devoid of dovelike qualities is to be passionless, mean, and selfish” and I have certainly spent a large amount of time in this state. But God is infinitely good and is helping me to move toward the dovelike, slowly but steadily growing in the pattern of a tree, toward combining and bearing these “strongly marked antitheses.” In part, this is why I majored in and now work in social work, hoping that through practice I could become a more empathetic son of the King.

Dr. King pleaded that tough minds and tender hearts must be brought together “if we are to move toward the goal of freedom and justice.” While speaking specifically of racial division a half-century ago, King’s words remain relevant today as he stated we cannot “trade the future of our children for our personal safety and comfort. Moreover, we must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”

However, for MLK, the means and methods in which Christians stand against injustice is just as important as the stand. He did not condone violence but pointed to Christ’s teachings for the motivation to build a non-violent resistance. “Violence brings only temporary victories; violence, by creating many more social problems than it solves, never brings permanent peace.”

Dr. King continued, “Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for full stature as citizens, but may it never be said, my friends, that to gain it we used the inferior methods of falsehood, malice, hate, and violence.”

The Reverend begins to wrap up his sermon by noting that “The greatness of our God lies in the fact that he is both toughminded and tenderhearted… God has two outstretched arms. One is strong enough to surround us with justice, and one is gentle enough to embrace us with grace.” This word imagery reminds me of Rembrandt’s “The Prodigal Son” in which Rembrandt illustrated the Kingdom’s duality of strength and compassion by depicting the Father with one masculine hand and one feminine hand.

Dr. King proceeded by saying God “is toughminded enough to transcend the world; he is tenderhearted enough to live in it. He does not leave us alone in our agonies and struggles. He seeks us in dark places and suffers with us and for us in our tragic prodigality.”

King ends by proclaiming, “When days grow dark and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice which will lead us through life’s dark valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.”


  1. Wednesday says:

    A beautiful reminder on a day like today. Thank you.

  2. Randy says:

    Wow! Being Tough minded and tender hearted certainly does encompass the whole growth process of a christian. To stand up for righteousness, yet in humility, to treat others as more important. Praise God for his goodness and glory! Thanks for bringing to remembrance our humble servant and friend, Martin Luther King Jr.

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