The weather in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, was hot enough, but not miserable. Mid-80s and sunny. Could have been worse. All the same, many in the crowd were in their Sunday best and surrounded by a quarter-million other people, everyone squeezed into any available cranny. By late afternoon, folk had to be hot. And, one can imagine, maybe a little impatient.
So when the keynote speaker of the day – the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – finally approached the lectern, anticipation was high. But the first half of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech did not rouse the crowd in the way that was expected. It was brilliant, to be sure, but folks were in their heads with it, and they were ready to be moved in their guts and onto their feet.
Sensing that there were heights King was stretching to attain, but not yet reaching, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson encouraged him. From her seat on the dais, just to King’s left, she shouted, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
King had been working on this image in speeches for several months prior. Jackson had heard it, and knew this was the moment for it. Hearing Jackson’s suggestion, King began to move away from his prepared notes and to speak extemporaneously. Americans now remember what followed as one of the most important moments in the history of U.S. oratory. He took the image of a dream and molded it into an unforgettable vision.
These key moments, ones that continue to stir hearts and souls more than half a century later, were improvised.
“God keeps improvising, as artists do.”
Improvisation is not simply “making stuff up,” as my children might do by banging on the family piano. Improvisation is a discipline that artists – actors, preachers, musicians, and others – learn. It is a craft that creators hone in order to make something beautiful in the midst of limitations. In a tightly circumscribed environment, those limitations become enabling constraints. They force the artist to dig deep within their creative wells to create something beautiful out of the few resources at hand. Miles Davis had a formed metal tube, 12 notes and a band, and changed the course of American music three or four times. King’s dream is built from the oppressive heat of Jim Crow, the fecund imaginations of his people and his relentless practice at building worlds out of words.
So does the Creator God of the universe build a world out of words. In the beginning, there was not nothing. In the first chapter of Genesis, God was there, and what God had to work with was the tohu wabohu – formlessness and a void. There was the wind of God sweeping over the primordial waters. Which is not much, but it is something. So God speaks into what is there, and what forms from that material are the stars in the sky and the saltiness of the ocean, blueberries and sequoias, earthworms and opossums.
The use of words to rearrange the formless world creates something exceedingly beautiful.
God keeps improvising, as artists do. Christians believe that a decisive moment of God’s creativity happens at the Incarnation. God as Trinity takes what is available – Godself and human flesh – and does something new in history. The glorious creativity of this moment continues to be remembered in the song to which it gave birth, Mary’s Magnificat. That creativity leads to the kind of creative understanding that explodes language – “fully human, fully divine” – and that creates new political and economic realities that continue to arise from the oppressed of the world who sing Mary’s song, and follow Mary’s baby.
The world contains as many tight constraints today as it did in the days of Caesar Augustus and of Herod, back when God and Mary joined together to create another way of saying “Yes” to the world. Numerous commentators have pointed out that Caesars were fans of building large buildings with their names emblazoned on them, or that Herod took up a maniacal and cruel crusade against children and their families.
Tyrants are still with us – different names, same strategies. Their policies are spoken globally, but their cruelty is felt locally.
Just on my block are mothers wondering about the safety of their children, workers without the advocacy of a union, dozens of children attending separate and unequal schools, fathers trying hopelessly to maintain stable housing and queer and trans people wondering where – if anywhere – they are safe.
“In this mean and nasty world, faith keeps improvising a new way forward.”
The danger is acute for some, but no one is safe. It has always been that way. “In the domination system you will have trouble,” Jesus promises. And though the precarity of life in Trump’s America is great, it is out of uncertainty, out of restriction and constriction, that beauty grows. It is created though every available means, turning everything sacred or profane into a canvas for something lovely. In this mean and nasty world, faith keeps improvising a new way forward.
For this world is also beautiful beyond words. What is needed to transform it is already with us. “The ‘Kin-dom’ of God is among you,” Jesus assures.
As in the innovations of the blues and jazz, improvisational music growing out of the black experience in America, those who will stand at the vanguard of Love’s creative revolution will be those who have felt the heat of oppression most intensely. Already hints of that coming goodness are among us. Rev. Dr. William Barber, who began as a labor organizer, now leads a movement for a re-birth of shared morality in public life. The most diverse Congress in history recently convened, featuring the energized leadership of prominent women of color, from young adults to those with the gift of years. In art, music, popular culture, literature, local politics and even in pulpits, those who have been locked in the furnace of Nebuchadnezzar’s cruelty are coming forward to lead yet another singing of the Magnificat. Surely they will continue to innovate on that old song, still celebrating the bringing down of the powerful from their thrones and the lifting up of the lowly. God still speaks, through the prophet Isaiah: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
From the formlessness of these midnight hours, out of the void of oppression and injustice, something is being born that will create a new song for all God’s people to sing. The revolution, when it comes, will be improvised.