August 28, 2013, was the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It is a very good speech. But it is not my favorite Martin Luther King, Jr. speech. My favorite is little known and even less remembered. It is a speech no leader in America on a stage such as he commanded would ever think to give. It is a speech about individuals being the best they can be as the beginning of their way in life and finding God as the end.
At a time when “glorifying God” has become a controversial subject, Dr. King knew what it meant and how important it was to our daily lives and vocation.
King’s “Street Sweeper” speech, which is more properly called “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” was a variation of a theme he went back and forth to over the years. He gave this particular speech to New Covenant Baptist Church in Chicago, IL, on April 9, 1967.
It’s common title of “The Street Sweeper” speech comes from this passage:
What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends, even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; (Go ahead) sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”
If you can’t be a pine on the top of a hill
Be a scrub in the valley—but be
The best little scrub on the side of the hill,
Be a bush if you can’t be a tree.
If you can’t be a highway just be a trail
If you can’t be the sun be a star;
It isn’t by size that you win or fail—
Be the best of whatever you are.
And when you do this, when you do this, you’ve mastered the length of life. (Yes)
This onward push to the end of self-fulfillment is the end of a person’s life. Now don’t stop here, though. You know, a lot of people get no further in life than the length. They develop their inner powers; they do their jobs well. But do you know, they try to live as if nobody else lives in the world but themselves? (Yes) And they use everybody as mere tools to get to where they’re going. (Yes) They don’t love anybody but themselves. And the only kind of love that they really have for other people is utilitarian love. You know, they just love people that they can use. (Well)
A lot of people never get beyond the first dimension of life. They use other people as mere steps by which they can climb to their goals and their ambitions. These people don’t work out well in life. They may go for awhile, they may think they’re making it all right, but there is a law. (Oh yeah) They call it the law of gravitation in the physical universe, and it works, it’s final, it’s inexorable: whatever goes up can come down. You shall reap what you sow. (Yeah) God has structured the universe that way. (Yeah) And he who goes through life not concerned about others will be a subject, victim of this law.
So I move on and say that it is necessary to add breadth to length. Now the breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others, as I said. (Yeah) And a man has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow confines of his own individual concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.
But the speech begins and ends in a higher plane. King lays out three dimensions in life. The length of life is “the inward concern for one’s own welfare.” The breadth of life is “the outward concern for the welfare of others. “The height of life is the upward reach for God.” King used John’s vision of the city of God being of equal length, breadth, and height to draw out this imagery that started his speech.
He ended his speech with a rejection of atheism.
Now a lot of people have neglected this third dimension. And you know, the interesting thing is a lot of people neglect it and don’t even know they are neglecting it. They just get involved in other things. And you know, there are two kinds of atheism. Atheism is the theory that there is no God. Now one kind is a theoretical kind, where somebody just sits down and starts thinking about it, and they come to a conclusion that there is no God. The other kind is a practical atheism, and that kind goes out of living as if there is no God. And you know there are a lot of people who affirm the existence of God with their lips, and they deny his existence with their lives. (That’s right) You’ve seen these people who have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. They deny the existence of God with their lives and they just become so involved in other things. They become so involved in getting a big bank account. (Yeah) They become so involved in getting a beautiful house, which we all should have. They become so involved in getting a beautiful car that they unconsciously just forget about God. (Oh yeah) There are those who become so involved in looking at the man-made lights of the city that they unconsciously forget to rise up and look at that great cosmic light and think about it—that gets up in the eastern horizon every morning and moves across the sky with a kind of symphony of motion and paints its technicolor across the blue—a light that man can never make. (All right) They become so involved in looking at the skyscraping buildings of the Loop of Chicago or Empire State Building of New York that they unconsciously forget to think about the gigantic mountains that kiss the skies as if to bathe their peaks in the lofty blue—something that man could never make. They become so busy thinking about radar and their television that they unconsciously forget to think about the stars that bedeck the heavens like swinging lanterns of eternity, those stars that appear to be shiny, silvery pins sticking in the magnificent blue pincushion. They become so involved in thinking about man’s progress that they forget to think about the need for God’s power in history. They end up going days and days not knowing that God is not with them. (Go ahead)
And I’m here to tell you today that we need God. (Yes) Modern man may know a great deal, but his knowledge does not eliminate God. (Right) And I tell you this morning that God is here to stay. A few theologians are trying to say that God is dead. And I’ve been asking them about it because it disturbs me to know that God died and I didn’t have a chance to attend the funeral. They haven’t been able to tell me yet the date of his death. They haven’t been able to tell me yet who the coroner was that pronounced him dead. (Preach, preach) They haven’t been able to tell me yet where he’s buried.
You see, when I think about God, I know his name. He said somewhere, back in the Old Testament, “I want you to go out, Moses, and tell them ‘I Am’ sent you.” (That’s right) He said just to make it clear, let them know that “my last name is the same as my first, ‘I Am that I Am.’ Make that clear. I Am.” And God is the only being in the universe that can say “I Am” and put a period behind it. Each of us sitting here has to say, “I am because of my parents; I am because of certain environmental conditions; I am because of certain hereditary circumstances; I am because of God.” But God is the only being that can just say, “I Am” and stop right there. “I Am that I Am.” And He’s here to stay. Let nobody make us feel that we don’t need God.
Before heading into the final, if you will, benediction of his speech, King concluded with this:
“This is the God of the universe. And if you believe in him and worship him, something will happen in your life. You will smile when others around you are crying. This is the power of God.”
More and more Americans, particularly, millennials are reverting to a pagan based hedonism reflected in Roman philosopher Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things.” Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern expounded on Lucretius’s poem and the concept of the “swerve.”
The swerve is the source of free will.
Nature ceaselessly experiments.
The universe was not created for or about humans.
Humans are not unique.
Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
The soul dies.
There is no afterlife.
Death is nothing to us.
All organized religions are superstitious delusions.
Religions are invariably cruel.
There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.
The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.
Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.
As we head into a more secular, atheist driven era, believers should look back to and remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His speech is one few of today’s major civll rights leaders would give — so centered on faith. But more importantly, the hedonist world view that believes in a swerve, not a God, and that believes “the highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain” is a world view that would have never charted the moral course to free slaves, let alone secure the rights and liberties of freedom for all.
It was faith in Christ that led William Wilberforce on the path to abolition of the slave trade. It was belief in an afterlife and a new Heaven and a new Earth that gave Martin Luther King, Jr. hope. Losing that faith and that hope in this country will lead to a loss of ability to give moral clarity like Dr. King gave in his speeches.