A few weeks ago marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final speech and subsequent death in Memphis, Tennessee. King’s death following a speech in which he virtually predicts his own impending death lends the oration a special, prophetic sense of significance. The fact that he draws on Mosaic imagery to define his work and where he will be laid to rest–– “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” he says––saturates his final words with a Biblical feel that is somehow the only fitting genre for the speech’s circumstances.
But I’ve always found something even more significant in King’s words that takes a little time to unpack. It is something that capitalizes on the prophetic mantle that King had put upon himself, even as it was hoisted upon him. And it is something that speaks to his deep understanding of the prophetic tradition, the Hebrew Bible, and the forms of expression that underlie the Christian theological tradition that animated all of King’s work.
The key to King’s final speech is a genre of literature: apocalypse. Far from being simply about the world’s end, apocalyptic literature flourished as the de facto popular literature among Jews throughout the centuries before the life of Jesus. The details of this literature have been discussed at length by learned scholars, but the salient elements of it are these. Apocalyptic is a literature that flourished among those groups of Jews who saw in their present surroundings a world that was operating outside of God’s intention for it.
Apocalyptic is a literature premised on the idea that someone chosen by God was let in on a secret about the future (apokalypsis means “secret”) and that understanding this secret was a way of knowing how God would set the world on its right footing again by remaking the world as it should be. Thus, the apocalyptic text was a kind of memorializing of a future that was yet to be. Those reading the apocalypse had the experience of knowing that there would be a future that did not look like the present.
The Apocalyptic Enoch preserved in the Ethiopian Ge’ez Language
This is where King’s prophetic work comes to the fore. Because no figure is more aligned with the special knowledge of God and a unique wisdom about the world than Moses. Moses and his mountaintop meetings with God became emblematic for the confrontation between human beings and truths that were beyond them. King knew this, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he presented himself in a Mosaic light. But it wasn’t this prophetic self-presentation that defined King’s purpose––it was the apocalyptic text that he used his role to read prophetically.
That apocalyptic text that king illuminates––as the prophetic visionary who has “seen the promised land” to come––is not the Torah, nor the gospels, nor any religious text. It is the U.S. Constitution. He intones how profound this document is as a piece of apocalyptic literature, something that describes the world as it ought to be. He lays this out with the conscientious repetition of baptist preaching, recalling “somewhere I read..”
But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights.
King’s recollection is of a series of rights, guarantees and protections that exist only in our hopes and ideals. They imagine a world that doesn’t exist yet. The constitution, for King, is not a dictate of the world we live in. It is a narrative telling of what the promised land could look like.