On the day that we remember the death of Dr Martin Luther King I was drawn back to this section of my chapter on Bob Dylan in my 2003 book The Rock Cries out... it critiques the white Church... urges a more Biblical view of social justice... and suggests King's impact on Dylan.
Long before Dylan joined the Vineyard Church’s Bible Study that was so widely publicised during his Christian conversion period of 1979 and 1980, he was working with a Church leader to bring about the justice that the Bible says so much about. Sadly, the white Church was not in tow. Indeed the Church was instigators of segregation. The grotesque and unbelievable hypocrisy is put well by Dave Magee in his Masters of Philosophy dissertation, “The Southern Baptist Convention, an all-white body, sent millions of dollars to Africa for mission, yet barred Africans living in America with membership.”
Martin Luther King had been disappointed with the Church’s support of his campaigning. Indeed while he thought they should be his strongest allies most were in direct opposition. For King this was a crux issue for the credibility of the Church’s place in the society of this day. He would be strong enough to warn “that if the Church does not stop uttering its ‘pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities,’ then it will, ‘be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.’
How many times and in how many places has the church taken the road of status quo, a pastoring of the way things are rather than a prophetic voice of how things ought to and can be. As Northern Ireland became in the seventies and eighties, so the deep southern states of America were in the fifties and sixties. Here were places where the cross and resurrection of Jesus could be proven to the doubters and the cynics by the those who truly believed in what his the first Easter. If they had taken the power of Christ’s passion and then lived out the words that he taught about loving enemies and peacemaking they could have been a shop window for the validity Christianity around the world. Instead they maintained the divided societies that allowed the world to ignore Christianity as just another contributing factor to divided societies carrying out the most horrific of injustices.
The Bible has constant warnings to the Church about its role in society and the danger of spiritualising the faith into a religious and pious ghetto. In the Old Testament prophecy of Amos God would in no uncertain terms highlight what his priorities for the community of faith are:
“I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings
And grain offerings
I will not accept them.
Though you bring me choice offerings
I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
Yet, the church seems to ignore such clear Biblical mandates and spends resources and all its efforts in religious events and conferences rather than seeking that justice and righteousness in the world around them. Many times passages like these are wished away by spiritualising the meaning and somehow ignoring the reality of Amos’s context of very clear social inequalities. Particularly in evangelical circles the vast crusades of Billy Graham were held in reverential awe at the same time when Martin Luther King’s non violent campaign to bring justice were deemed at least liberal and at worst something near demonic. A look in the mirror of the Scriptures of Amos might have at the very least redressed the balance in what we perceived to have been the most Biblical of the different campaign of Graham and King in the late fifties and sixties. In 1958 when King had urged Graham not to allow himself to be used by Governor Price Daniels, a segregationist, the Governor of Texas in his re-election bid. Graham’s right hand man would write to King and say that Billy Graham never gets involved in politics. Thirty years after King’s murder Graham would speak of King as “the most eloquent spokesperson of the civil rights movement, a champion of justice for all people…” Sad that he could not have stood with someone he so admired!
As King’s brothers in Christ kept him at arms length Bob Dylan filled the gap – the (rock)folkies cries out! He sang Blowing In The Wind and Only A Pawn In Their Game at the Washington Rally in August 1963 when King made his legendary I Have A Dream speech. Others to perform included Dylan’s lover at that moment, Joan Baez, Peter Paul And Mary, who had brought him to the wider audience with their version of Blowing In The Wind, and the legendary Mahalia Jackson. It had been Jackson who inspired King’s iconoclastic speech by shouting as if to a black preacher “Tell us your dream Martin!” King had indeed begun his speech by alerting the listener to the significance of the day that he said, “will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
Indeed Andy Gill would go as far as to say that King was one of the connections in Dylan that drew him to understand the power of the Bible. He writes, “He has always been keenly aware of biblical discourse as a useful storehouse of mythopoeic folk imagery, littering his songs with references to parables and prophets; and as he got involved with the civil rights movement, Dylan surely recognised the commitment of church leaders like Martin Luther King, and the strength King’s followers drew from their faith. Indeed, many of his songs from this period suggest his acknowledgement that protest anthems are, in effect secular hymns, and his delivery frequently takes on a sermonizing cast.”