To Dream of Better Things

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, March 15, 2024

We must do all we can to imagine the Other before we presume to solve the problems work and life demand of us . . . What would it be like to live in a world where the solution of serious, learned people to practically every big problem was not to kill somebody?”

—Toni Morrison

In her recent book on the life and relationship of civil rights heroes Medgar and Myrlie Evers, journalist Joy-Ann Reid recounted Medgar Evers’ work with Clyde Kennard. Kennard was a Korean War veteran who, after returning to Mississippi to take care of his mother, decided to apply to the segregated Mississippi Southern College to complete his education. The retaliation was swift. Files from the white supremacist, pro-segregation organization the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission reveal a coordinated campaign to frame and charge Kennard for a series of crimes, including possession of alcohol in a dry state and theft of $25 worth of chicken feed from a farm co-op warehouse. It took an all-white jury 10 minutes to return a guilty verdict. Sentenced to 7 years in the deadly maximum security Parchman Penitentiary, Kennard could not apply to any college in Mississippi and was diagnosed with cancer soon after being remanded to prison. I’m not naïve, but it still stuns me how serious, learned people, with a range of possible options and responses at their disposal, indulge their diabolical imagination to destroy and kill. Unable to see the humanity of an Other, they chose to kill.

In a commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College in 1988, the author Toni Morrison invited the graduates to pause on pursuing personal happiness, which has overwhelmingly become synonymous with money, power, protection, and possessions. Instead, she asked them to dream. She saw dreaming as a “preamble to problem-solving,” whereby we visualize the needs, concerns, and experiences of the Other, those who are unlike us or less fortunate than us, whose precarity is usually addressed (or unaddressed) by benign neglect or plausibly denied death. It is possible to feed the hungry, house those who need shelter, or provide livable wages to workers if we allow our dreams for a better, safer, more neighborly existence for all to influence our living.

As Morrison convincingly articulated, “Dreaming is not irresponsible; it is first-order human business.” I think the Apostle Paul understood the possibilities that unfold for those who are willing to reject the dehumanizing conventional paradigms of state and community relations: “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Intrinsic to the covenant relationship with a gracious, merciful God is the ethical response to the needs of our neighbors. We are empowered to embrace an ethic of care, which begins with a vision of the humanity of the Other, a dream of better things.