MLK on Work: Sweeping the Streets of Gold

By Greg Forster; part four of a series.

In this final post on MLK’s profound speech at Barratt Junior High, I want to focus on how his famous faith-and-work “street sweeper” image draws together the elements we’ve seen so far in the speech, but also adds something more. So far he has looked back to describe our origins (creation design) and looked around to describe our situation (our calling and our challenges). Now he will look forward to describe our destiny.

This is an eschatological street sweeper, sweeping the streets of gold in the New Jerusalem.

Here is the famous passage:

If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.

The immediate appeal of the image is in its response to the dilemma of our present situation. As we have seen, we find ourselves under a calling to excellence in our work, but also confronting injustice and oppression in our work.

Obviously we want to remove injustice. And (as King has emphasized) the particular injustices that are most relevant to this talk are in fact on the road to oblivion.

But how do we work in the meantime? And how do we continue to work, knowing that other injustices show no immediate sign of decline? And that others are no doubt awaiting us around the next historical bend?

The answer brings in Christian personalism, which was the foundation from which King began his talk. Our bedrock commitment is the intrinsic dignity of the human person made in God’s image, according to God’s flawless blueprint.

The key here is that the dignity of the person is intrinsic. Conditions of oppression cannot remove it. Work that is done with excellence always reveals the excellent blueprint of the divine architect, and thus manifests the intrinsic dignity of the person doing the work.

There are some who think work cannot have dignity under conditions of injustice. I heard more or less this view expressed from the stage at an event here at my school just last month. With respect, although that’s well-intentioned, it leads to monstrous conclusions.

The dignity of a person’s work is essential to the social recognition of that person’s intrinsic dignity. Because human dignity is intrinsic to the person, you cannot first improve working conditions and then, when you have improved them, announce “now this person’s work can have dignity.” Saying that is tantamount to saying “this person does not have human dignity until we, the social reformers, convey it to them.”

Moreover, if you begin by saying that “this person does not yet have human dignity; we are here to bestow it on them,” those who oppose your reforms may simply say “if this person does not yet have human dignity, why are we concerned about them?” This happens much, much more often than you might think. (There’s a whole passage about it in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.)

And so the street sweeper, by doing their work with excellence, finds themselves participating in the honor and recognition accorded to all excellent work. The street sweeper becomes equal to Shakespeare or Beethoven.

Thus we see that vocation is a key pillar of social equality.

But we are not done. There is more going on here than at first meets the eye. Notice what King says just before the street sweeper appears:

And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.

The street sweeper who sweeps with sufficient excellence may become an equal to Shakespeare, but we will never see this within the limited scope of the present. All we see in the present is a person of low social and economic status, doing a “menial” job.

To see the street sweeper’s dignity, we must see it from a viewpoint outside history. “Set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it.” If God decided to put you in this time and this place, out of all possible times and places, so you could do this particular job, that means God is evaluating your work by standards that transcend all times and places.

It is only in the light of all history – which we can only see by standing outside of history – that ephemeral considerations such as social and economic status fade away. When all the living and the dead and the unborn are gathered at the end of all things, who will care about such distractions then? They will be gone – dust swept away by the wind of the Second Coming.

It is only when we consider the street sweeper as a person who will be judged outside history, a person who will be judged by standards that have nothing to do with his time and place, a person who will be judged by God in the presence of every person who ever lived or ever will, that the dignity of the street-sweeper’s work becomes clear.

For Shakespeare and Beethoven themselves, not the mostly-fictional characters whom we imagine in our heads but the actual men, living and breathing in their physical bodies, will be there when God pronounces “well done” over every faithful street sweeper and ditch digger and truck driver in history.

And Shakespeare may well say, “I only wish I could have written Hamlet as well as he swept that street.”

And it will be no joke, but a sincere and grave judgment. For that is the justice of the kingdom of God.

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