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The dream and the nightmare

19 January 2017

God’s will can be embraced when a bitter cup threatens, says Philip Lockley


Another day in Washington: Martin Luther King after his “I have a dream” speech in August 1963

Another day in Washington: Martin Luther King after his “I have a dream” speech in August 1963

God grant that as we go out and face life with all of its decisions, as we face the bitter cup which we will inevitably face from day to day, God grant that we will learn this one thing and that is to make the transition from “this cup” to “nevertheless”.
Martin Luther King (1929-68)


THE Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr is not remembered for his prayers, more for his dreams. In 1963, he spoke of his most famous dream — of future racial equality, justice, and brotherhood — to a vast crowd in Washington, DC.

In that speech, Dr King rooted his dream in the biblical vision of low places raised, the rough made smooth, the crooked straightened, and the glory of the Lord revealed to all people. Dr King’s was a dream that reflected God’s intended future for humanity.

Six years earlier, Dr King had offered this very different prayer, in very different circumstances: during a Palm Sunday sermon preached to his regular Dexter Avenue Baptist congregation in Montgomery, Alabama. Dr King was not yet a household name, and the campaign to end racial discrimination in the American South remained young and fragile.

Dr King’s prayer has none of the expansive Old Testament imagery of his more familiar rhetoric. There is no eschatological horizon here. It begins with the mundane and the everyday — the ordinary decision-making of life. And it remains down-to-earth, even as it equates the daily challenge of life for his congregation — their “bitter cup” of experience as African Americans living in segregated Alabama — with the definitive New Testament moment of decision: Jesus’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The phrase “bitter cup” is an embellishment of the scriptural text. No Synoptic Gospel account includes the descriptive “bitter” in Jesus’s plea that “this cup” pass from him (Matthew), be taken away (Mark), or be removed (Luke). Nor does “bitter cup” actually appear anywhere else in the Bible, although “bitter water”, “water of gall”, and cups of wrath and indignation come close.

Even so, we know that this cup is “bitter”. We know this from Christ, from all that he faced on Good Friday, and from the persecution that many Christians have suffered — Dr King’s congregation included.

And perhaps we know it from our own experience, however dissimilar in degree; for, surely, “bitter” is the taste of fear. We have all tasted fear when facing a necessary decision that will bring pain, humiliation, or vulnerability.

This cup metaphor captures something of how such a prospect affects us. Dealing with danger for a cause, facing a life-threatening action, foreseeing personal jeopardy on the road to the right place — all such experiences loom into our view. They are placed in our hands. They hover at our lips, even as our throat catches and our stomach twists. We really do not want this: we cannot face it. We will do anything to avoid having to taste, having to swallow, having to go through with this. Please, God, take it away.

But then there is that transition, the change to “nevertheless”. In more modern English translations, a shorter, terser “yet” pivots the prayer: “yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22.42, NRSV). The Authorised Version deploys instead this curious compound word “nevertheless”: “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”

At first, this seems just a lengthy synonym for “yet”, or “but” — an elongated adverb emphasising the shift of thought in a contrary direction. Perhaps, in due course, that negative “never” comes to imply resignation; it suggests that Jesus is resigned to God’s will, and so are we.

But Jesus’s choice cannot be resignation. And our free acceptance of God’s purpose is not a resigning act. Instead, “nevertheless” contains more meaning and significance. In it lies the subtle key to this call to imitate Christ. It is not just a longer adverb; the word is a theological statement in reverse. For, when the compound “nevertheless” is broken down, turned over, and rebuilt in its positive form, it becomes “always-the-more”. And this is the truth of any decision taken to follow God — the God who is “always-the-more”.

In Gethsemane, Jesus resolved to follow the path of the Father’s will — a path to death, but also to resurrection, and victory over death. With God, therefore, the decision to follow leads to much, much more. For the Dexter Avenue congregation, their resolve to follow a path of non-violent protest in response to injustice was further understood as obedience to the will of God. The fruits of that peaceful struggle would be always-the-more — more than a response of violence or despair. In such action lies the freeing of the oppressor, too.

With our own “bitter cup” — whatever its cause and make-up — the truth is surely the same: that when we make that transition from a focus on “this cup”, the hovering foretaste of fear before us, to embrace God’s will in a given situation, we are discovering that God is always-the-more for us.


Dr Philip Lockley is an ordinand at Cranmer Hall, Durham. He was formerly a Lecturer in Theology at Trinity College, Oxford, and taught modern church history in the university.

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