Monday, April 4, 2005

The Relic and the Visionary

Today the mass media were as one in covering the dead body of an old man who represents a medieval relic of ideology, even as they totally ignored the anniversary of a far more important and somber event for humankind than the passing of another Papal Emperor. John Paul II has received what I feel is his fair due of remembrance and esteem, for his outspoken bravery in calling totalitarianism and tyranny to account. He will have a modest place in history for this: but can it be said that he helped to move humanity forward in terms of facing down, at great personal risk, all of the violence, racism, gender prejudice, and idolatry of our feudal past and present?

I don't believe any such claim can be made for the Pope; but it could have been said of another, especially if he had been allowed to live out even two-thirds of John Paul's life span. But Martin Luther King was shot--perhaps executed--on this day in 1968, and in that moment of his death, the human race took a kick to the stomach that set it reeling backward into its prior darkness and poverty of spirit.

Today, we cannot afford to abide this darkness, for it is closing in on us and our children like a tall tide of death: our planetary home is diseased, and becoming nearly as sick and black as the hearts of the most powerful human leaders of the world today. If we are to look back, let it be quickly--to take the message of progress that this Pope sporadically bore; but we would gain far more for our moment from a remembrance of the path that King opened so widely before us, before he was so murderously silenced. It is a path that can still be traveled, if enough of us will shake off the dust of a medieval ideology and urgently demand that the tyrants of this world give back the earth to the people who will care for it in a spirit of modesty and equality. Like Martin Luther King writing from his jail cell in Birmingham, we can no longer be patient:

My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant 'Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.

To read the full text of the Birmingham letter (it's well worth it), look here.

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