Recently, a friend asked me regarding my plans for the holiday season.  The text message was written hurriedly, for he and his wife were leaving for the weekend.  I received the question, “What ate your Christmas plans?”  Of course, I knew it was a typographical snafu that the cell phone completed; however, it struck me as strangely descriptive of that which has been going on in our country.

Many individuals feel the pressure of joining the commercial and consumer bandwagons to purchase and exchange gifts.  It is quite stressful for those who can barely make ends meet.  They struggle to find deals—sale discounts that they still cannot afford, but which are less than they would have to pay at full price.  There are many who go into further debt, hoping that tax refunds might save them.  Others realize they cannot participate in the material demands of this period of forced charitableness, and they regrettably and embarrassingly share with family, relatives, and friends the failures of their socioeconomic circumstances.

Although these latte decisions might very well save their lives and prevent them from worsening their credit rating, they often pout and put themselves down because they cannot meet their own expectations or fulfill the anticipations of others.  In a very real sense, the accidental question “What ate your Christmas plans” seems precisely prescient.  After all, their financial states of affairs precluded the possibility of gratifying their reciprocal gifting plans!

What is incredulous during this time is the realization that the rushed-through tax reform passed by the U.S. Congress demonstrates that legislators elected to ignore the shrill cries of the middle, working, lower, and under-classes.  They decided to give unprecedented tax cuts to corporations and the richest people—a wonderful Christmas present for them, but continued exploitation of the majority of citizens of this country.  Hence, this new legislation did metaphorically “eat” their Christmas plans!

When I first read my friend’s text message, I almost immediately thought about that storied arrogance, “Let them eat cake.”  Even though the saying has been misattributed to Marie Antoinette and predates her adulthood, it struck me that she had been known to enrich her coffers, collude with her native Austria and other countries, and exploited those suffering all around her through deception and temporary insubstantial measures.  Eventually, those in authority and the general population despaired of her shenanigans: they convicted of treason and condemned her to the guillotine.

Economic exploitation, structural discrimination, mistreatment of immigrants, and other forms of persecution and oppression have been around a long time.  They have never been beaten down, but there have been times when they have not won the day entirely.  We are witnessing a resurgence of actions and policies that seem to permit the deliberate obstruction of full participation in the body politic based on classifications and categories of people we need to transcend.  The prospects of the so-called American experiment are being vitiated and distorted deliberately, and we seem unable to come together to trample the corruption.

Whereas I am nonviolent in my approach to the resolution of conflict, I am by no means passive.  We cannot remain idle when the ethics of love, compassion, and justice is being ignored by our leaders.  Representative democracy depends on the participation of all, and we need to make our voices and perspectives heard in the public arena.  There is a lot at stake.  Else, many more will soon be asking, “What ate your Christmas plans?”


Posted in Poverty, Social Ethics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What Must Be Sacrificed?

My friend and colleague, Thomas L. Kessler, has written a piece as a guest contributor to my blog.  This post marks the first time I have invited another individual to offer remarks and commentary concerning contemporary ethical matters.  Kessler’s article is in partial response to my blog on “The Supremacy of Sacrifice.”  Hopefully, in the future, we (and others) will engage in dialogue as we seek to forge a better society for all.  Now, here is Kessler’s blog.

Thank you, Dr. B., for providing an opportunity to contribute to your Social Ethics Blog by sharing a few of my thoughts on your comments, the book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by the Rev. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, and race relations in 2017 America.  You may remember that in conversation I referred to Dr. Dyson’s book as “strong medicine” for most white Americans, as I would similarly characterize your 1982 essay Sacrifice and Enlightenment.  Unfortunately, there are occasions when a disease is so serious that the strongest medicines are necessary.  The malignant and metastasizing cancer of racism in our society presents just such an occasion for an overdue dose of strong chemotherapy for our national body politic.

Dyson wears two hats; one as a university professor and the other as a Baptist minister.  He wrote Tears We Cannot Stop primarily as the pastor, defining his book as a sermon, and structuring it in the form of a worship service.  From the first paragraphs (“Call to Worship”) Dyson delivers a sometimes painful message to white America, speaking about a “racial gulf” so wide that “black and white people don’t merely have different experiences” but “seem to occupy different universes.”  He calls on us, regardless of faith perspective or lack thereof, to honestly address our nation’s original sin of racism.  Indeed, his words will “make you squirm in your seat with discomfort before, hopefully, pointing a way to relief.”  He concludes his introductory comments by saying “… the time is at hand for reckoning with the past, recognizing the truth of the present, and moving together to redeem the nation for our future.  If we don’t act now, if you don’t address race immediately, there may very well be no future.”  Dyson goes on from there, delivering his searing and prophetic sermon about racism in America.  I can only say Amen!

Dyson’s words are so direct and powerful that many of those – let’s be honest here – many of those whites who have not yet engaged seriously, deeply or honestly with the issue of racism may well reject the message and medicine without opening their minds and hearts to truth and ultimate healing.  I deeply regret saying that, but it is my honest assessment from within the white American middle class milieu. I suspect, Dr. B., that your 1982 essay Sacrifice and Enlightenment met with a similar reaction from the editor(s) at Newsweek.

Another book I’d recommend be read in tandem with Dyson’s is America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America by white evangelical Christian author and activist Jim Wallis.  Each book complements the other as Dyson provides a prophetic sermon and Wallis provides a supporting Sunday school lesson.  Which begs the question, is it best to hear the sermon and then attend Sunday school, or to first get the Sunday school lesson and then hear the sermon?  There is no definitive answer, but in the case of those most likely to reject Dyson’s message, the lessons laid out in America’s Original Sin might serve to prepare one to hear and take Dyson’s message to heart.  Regardless of the order read, those wanting a better understanding of race relations and racism in America will benefit from a careful and reflective reading of both books.  Both identify racism as America’s original sin and call for personal and collective repentance and redemption.  Again, I can only offer a resounding Amen!

Dyson’s discussion of reparation is far more encompassing than mere economic reparations.  Both Dyson and Wallis provide guidance for proactively moving forward to address and redress racism in America.  In your essays, Dr. B., you spoke along the same lines regarding repentance and redemption, and you called for white Americans to make “proactive sacrifices to their privileged statuses to forge a new society inclusive of everybody and offering opportunities for all.”  It is to your call for sacrifice that I want to direct my remaining comments.  I am not going to speak to the economics of the matter, except to say that it would certainly require a major reordering of national priorities and perhaps a level of life-style adjustments for some.  That said, I doubt it would be as economically impossible or apocalyptic as many might fear or proclaim, and ultimately less a question of money than of personal and collective will and morality.

Just what must be sacrificed by white America to forge that new society inclusive of and offering opportunities for all?   My comments below come out of the sad reality I see and experience in white American society when it comes to the issues of race and racism.  I realize that each “sacrifice” I suggest could rightly serve as the subject of an entire blog entry, and that you or readers could add to the list. My words may sound harsh to some, but they are intended to be descriptive rather than accusatory.  They are based on universal aspects of the human condition, and certainly are matters I have grappled with personally over the past two decades.

We must sacrifice our denial.  Many white Americans respond to the mere mention of racism with denial that racism exists in America today.  They do this for a variety of reasons, one being that personal bigotry is often conflated with systemic racism.  While personal bigotry and systemic racism are not unrelated concerns, they are separate issues and require separate remedies.  While examples of both abound in contemporary America, a decline (although not disappearance) in the numbers of the most overt forms of bigotry over recent decades is often pointed to as evidence of the decline of racism.  Systemic racism however is not declining, and some would argue is on the increase in 2017 America.

We must sacrifice our ignorance.  Many, perhaps most, white Americans don’t have a deep or broad knowledge of the history and contemporary state of race and race relations in America, the development of the social construct of race, nor an extensive understanding of the wide range of racial disparities within our country.   Dyson (see chapter #6) and Wallis (see footnotes) provide references to many resources one can turn to in order to educate themselves.

 We must sacrifice our comfort.  The more privileged life one leads, the more it is possible to live in a bubble of comfort, limiting one’s contact and interaction with those who lead less privileged lives defined by difficulties and/or challenges.  Conversations across lines of race are also undeniably difficult, and it can seem that there are no ways forward to solve problems and issues related to race.  However, insulating oneself from others, from unwelcome realities and difficult problems make them no less real.

We must sacrifice our apathy.  There are great racial disparities in 2017 America in our criminal justice, economic, educational, medical and other social systems.  Those disparities are well documented, widely known and factually indisputable.  Apathy and indifference to the plight of others is sometimes rooted a primitive tribalism, but whatever the reason, conscious indifference to the suffering of others is a great moral deficit.

We must sacrifice our false myths.  The false myths of self-sufficiency and individualism are particularly prevalent among segments of white American society.  While individual effort and initiative are undeniably important for all, we live in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent society, and the ills affecting some ultimately affect all.  Letting go of these false myths serves both morality and self-interest.

Individually and collectively, we are faced with a moral question as old as humanity:  What responsibility do we bear toward others?  To successfully address America’s original sin of racism we must acknowledge our individual and collective responsibility and act accordingly.  The good news is that it is well within our individual and collective power to decide to make the necessary sacrifices.  The bad news is that to do so challenges us in very deep ways in terms of self-perceptions, understanding of the world, perceived personal security, and our very identities.  In short, it calls for an opening of our minds and hearts on the path to personal and collective repentance and redemption.

Of course, to be redeemed and to excise systemic racism from our society, these sacrifices must be followed by more concrete economic sacrifices and political action.  But personal and collective redemption are possible, and Wallis’ America’s Original Sin and Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop can serve as powerful tools in those endeavors.


About Thomas Kessler

Coordinator of the Peace & Justice Center of the Cedar Valley (a ministry of Cedar Falls Mennonite Church), UNI Professor Emeritus of Library Services.  B.G.S., M.A.L.S. & M.B.A. – University of Iowa.

Posted in Race Relations, Social Ethics | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

The Supremacy of Sacrifice

In 1982, as I was finishing my final courses for the master of divinity degree at Yale University, I wrote an op-ed piece for Newsweek’s “My Turn” column.  I had the belief that the editors would look favorably upon a soon-to-be Yale alum, and I did not think that my elitism was grandiose or ill-advised.  What I had typed at the time was a brief essay called, “Sacrifice and Enlightenment.”  The main thrust of the article was to suggest that a major antidote to racism is the recognition of this blight against humanity by white people and their making proactive sacrifices to their privileged statuses to forge a new society inclusive of everybody and offering opportunities for all.  What follows is an excerpt of that commentary.

White people are misled when they firmly believe that they do not need to sacrifice.  They fail to realize that such sacrificing is redemptive, that they will benefit greatly from the strengths and beauty of diversity.  They seem not to remember that black people as a whole have been suffering for centuries—that white people in the main should be earnest and assiduous in assisting blacks to reach the status of full-fledged human beings and welcome civic contributors to a new America.

A little sacrifice (and concomitant suffering), relatively speaking, on the part of white people and a greater awareness (and understanding and endurance) on the part of black people can coalesce to bring about a better America.  If a better America is what we truly want, then, with a genuine change of heart, we shall do just fine.

It was not so much that I was naïve and unsophisticated at the time, albeit my writing style has markedly improved (or so I believe).  Quite frankly, I just felt it simply needed to be said.  I was angered momentarily by the rejection letter I had received from the managing editor, Kenneth Auchincloss, which states: “Dear Contributor: Thank you for your submission to NEWSWEEK’S ‘My Turn’ column.  I am afraid your piece is not quite right for us, and I am returning it to you.”  It did not seem like a form letter, though maybe it could have been.  But I was struck by and stayed stuck on the words “not quite right for us.”  I was uncertain what that meant.  I felt that my intentions were honorable and that I was trying to suggest how we could work to put this insidious specter of white racism from following us into the future.

At that time, I had already read many of the works of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois and had heard and read many of the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Du Bois and King were heroes of mine.  During their careers as movement leaders and public intellectuals and cultural critics, they had argued for white people to sacrifice their superior position to help advance those systematically exploited and oppressed.  The great author, James Baldwin, had also slipped this sacrificial recommendation in some of his novels and opinion pieces.  So I realized I was in good company.  Nevertheless, I wanted to restate the case during a period of time when I felt the burgeoning national administration under President Ronald Reagan was inevitably going to turn back the clock on all the gains the classic Civil Rights Movement had accomplished.

As a director of a campus multicultural center, I was able to invite a variety of speakers to the university to discuss racial and ethnic group relations in the United States.  Two persons I was delighted to have come by a few times are Tim Wise and the late Manning Marable.  The latter explored the destructiveness of racism in our political landscape, and the former discussed what white people needed to do to repair the damage that white racism has caused in multiple and cumulative ways.  Their unique perspectives and rhetorical styles reached similar conclusions about steps that need to be taken to make the experiment of America finally become a reality of inclusion and pluralism.

It had been thirty-five years since my unpublished piece meant for Newsweek was unceremoniously returned to me.  Yet the idea of sacrifice à la Du Bois, King, Marable, Wise and me has not dissipated.  In part, it is a driving force behind Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.  The esteemed professor of sociology at Georgetown University also had graced the podium under the auspices of the aforementioned center.  His eloquence and impassioned speaking style are inimitable, and his dynamic rhetoric both convicts and charges listeners.  I imagine that people can be easily intimidated by his erudition and his ability to characterize the multifaceted human condition in black and white.  His literary style may remove the haranguing that some can hear, but its sharpness, blatancy, and searing truth can also be disturbing.  However, for people who are interested in learning more about how blacks continue to be mistreated—from the killing of unarmed African Americans to the support of white nationalism and Donald Trump—and what must be done to keep this country from returning more deeply to its xenophobic and racial morass, then Dyson’s book is a must read!  After all, Dyson is an ordained Baptist preacher and he laments the moral depravity and structural ineptitude that supplant progress and democracy.

Check back here in two weeks as a guest blogger shares his understanding of Dyson’s book as a way of analyzing race relations today from a white person’s perspective.  A dialogue between the two of us initially may generate further conversations with others as we address this perduring American legacy in search of extirpation.

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Dealing with North Korea

As a thoroughgoing pacifist, I clearly disfavor the use of violence to resolve international conflict.  How to respond to the growing nuclear capability of North Korea is rather complex, many experts say, and the options available to and being explored by the United States government are quite alarming in their destructive possibilities.  I believe that the present crisis is the result of a longtime practice of dismissing potential tension until it becomes explosive.

What I mean to point to here is the fact that we consistently hesitate to engage in serious diplomatic efforts until a situation that could have been prevented is upon us.  We watched as Korea’s singular goal to become a nuclear nation developed and flourished.  Rather than engage in intense discussions with our allies and other nations in the area to suppress the mounting threat to peace and security in the region and the world, we refused to take the bold steps we needed to dismantle North Korea’s pursuit of their goal completely.

Part of the problem of lack of redress is that we are reluctant to negotiate with established or perceived enemies.  When we do not communicate directly with opposing nations, we risk the escalation of conflict that seems almost irrevocable.  Whereas I do not believe there ever comes a time when the violence of war is absolutely necessary, I do believe we do not help to divert such a catastrophe by circumventing direct conversation with all parties involved, including nations with different interests than our own.

What is challenging is persuading another nation, insistent on fulfilling their own interests, that their goals and objectives are destructive and ultimately inhumane.  Who has ample authority objectively to make that claim?  It is all the more difficult when we seek to disable another nation from having what we and other countries already possess!  On what moral grounds do we stand, when having arsenals of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction to the level we do gives us superpower status that makes all other nations extremely vulnerable?

Of course, we cannot go back in time and change the fact that military might can wipe all traces of human existence on this earth.  However, cases can be made that claim the introduction of another nation to the roster of those with nuclear weapons would significantly alter the balance of power that is already quite precarious.  The devastating reactions of nations and populations around the world to the U.S. show of force on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 would be replicated, albeit not to the same degree because there is a level of deterrence since there are other countries able to execute nuclear strikes without the aid or support of the United States.

In my opinion, it would be both foolhardy and unconscionable unilaterally to attack North Korea without direct provocation.  Too many lives would be lost, including those of U.S. soldiers and citizens in the region.  In this day and age, it is morally indefensible to exercise first-strike capabilities of a conventional or nuclear means.  The proximity of North Korea to contiguous nations as well as others at moderate nautical distances obviates any violent intrusions.

Regime change should always be off the table, since every country has subjective interests that militate against intervention into their own boundaries.  Hence, it would be inconsistent to argue logically for the overthrow of another country’s leadership.  Respectfully negotiating with opposing and threatening nations is preferable to violence, even if sometimes there is the belief that a particular leader, such as Kim Jong Un, is mentally and emotionally unstable.

At this juncture, imposing multilateral and multifarious sanctions against North Korea and other noncompliant nations seems to be the most feasible option to compel Kim to relinquish his testing exhibitions and his building stockpiles of nuclear weaponry.  These sanctions should be severe encroachments upon Korea’s normal conductance of domestic and foreign business.  Kim should get the message that anything short of full cooperation with shutting down its nuclear program would debilitate his country and its people.

Many have argued in the past that international sanctions are acts of violence, even though no military weapon is employed.   I disagree.  From my vantage point, there is a genuine difference between physical violence and international sanctions.  For the most part, sanctioning a nation is not only avoiding directly killing soldiers and civilians, but also putting the fate of the country into the hands of its government.  The nation’s leaders can preclude the possibilities of harm and death by agreeing to the demands of the sanctioning agent(s).  It would take appreciably longer for sanctions to result in casualties than warfare.

Posted in Social Ethics, War & Peace | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Felonious Violence or Not?

I do not want representatives of our democracy to become so out of control that they attack reporters physically—regardless of how politicians or candidates might dislike their questioning.  The body slamming of Ben Jacobs of The Guardian by Greg Gianforte of Montana was arrogant, misanthropic, and foolhardy.  It suggests that he was unable to verbalize a cogent answer to the reporter and opted for a shortcut solution, which was not a response at all, but just an unconscionable reaction.

This incident reminds me of how other professionals lash out in violence because they have not learned how to defuse situations.  Instead, they let their emotions get the best of them, so to speak, and use the weapons at their disposal to act out of fear and without thinking.  A lack of training in deescalating confrontations contributes to bringing episodes to the boiling point—resulting in a network of exacerbating ramifications.  The relationships between police and community members and the consequences thereof easily exemplify the tendency to interact destructively from a vantage point of xenophobia, ignorance, and categorical prejudices and stereotypes.

What is disturbing about the aftermath is that Gianforte’s actions were not considered to be felonious in nature.  The police charged him with misdemeanor assault despite the fact his actions intended to cause harm to Jacobs.  His actions were grossly disproportional to the feisty entreaties by the journalist, who cannot be characterized as belligerent, aggressive, and threatening.  Such lack of equivalency demands a stiffer charge.

However, we live in a society that has become increasingly accustomed to lying, bullying, impropriety, narcissism, megalomania, conflicts of interest, etc.  The cruelty, nastiness, and disrespect candidate Donald Trump utilized during the presidential campaign have been dismissed by many as unimportant and shamelessly copied by his supporters.  Clumsiness in the face of the media does not give those being interviewed the license to resort to violence.  The exculpatory responses by Republican legislators, for example, make mockery of our system of justice and accountability.

It is my hope that citizens dealing with real issues in their communities across the country do not relent for fear of such outlandish reprisals.  We currently live in an atmosphere that regales hatred and calumny as a substitute for healthy debate, persuasion, and constructive criticism or praise.  The members of the justice system, legislative branches, and voting population must take the initiative to put the kibosh on these mindless outbreaks!

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Generally speaking, as I have expressed herein numerous times, I am opposed to the use of force to deal with international conflict.  I have roundly criticized the use of drones, which has markedly increased since I last wrote.  Also, I believe that sovereign nations that do things wrong to its citizenry are not a direct threat to another country’s national security.  The recent Syrian attacks on civilians with the nerve agent Sarin are, indeed, heinous and should be condemned on humanitarian grounds at the very least.  However, I do not assent to the claim that the act itself approaches a level that is dangerous to the United States.  The explanation of the current Trump administration in launching fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles upon the Syrian airfield, from which the chemical attacks that killed one-hundred civilians emanated, was in reaction to the horrific acts by the government of Bashar al-Assad and a considerable threat to our national security.  Both aspects of that explanation, in my estimation, do not rise to the level of military violence by one country against another country.

In 2013, former President Barack Obama was perched on the edge of his seat to launch a military strike against Syria for murdering innocent children and other civilians with chemical weapons.  Obama was prepared to utilize the same missiles from vessels on the Mediterranean Sea.  At the last minute, so to speak, he constrained himself from so doing because he was being criticized for proceeding unilaterally, i.e., without consulting with the U.N Security Council and our Allies.  At the time, the atmosphere of racism in the U.S. Congress and the concomitant opposition to anything Obama sought by Republicans politicized their denial of Obama’s request allegedly on the grounds that Syria’s odious internal aggression did not constitute a threat to U.S. security.

Donald Trump did not want to wait on the majority Republican Congress to discuss the matter.  Instead, he made up his mind to demonstrate his willingness to use the military to reprimand Assad.  His decision went deeper than his expressed aversion to the sight of poisoned, incapacitated, and dying children.  He has been trying desperately to change the narrative of all the concerns with his campaign and presidency concerning Russian, his low approval rating, and the dysfunction of his administration.  Without a real plan for dealing with Syria and other countries in the Arab world, this operation could only address domestic issues rather than reveal any coherent foreign policy.  But the media is adept at allowing Trump to change the focus of their coverage of the executive branch.

His criticism of Obama is intentionally deceptive, if it is not subtle or incisive.  Clearly, he is not aware that his desires to distort Obama’s legacy must be based upon facts and not fictions or illusions.  For were he about the truth, Trump would indicate how he had agreed with the decision not to bomb Syria back in 2013.  Now that he’s in power, he wants to exercise it because he has demonstrated an obvious ignorance on how to govern.

We shall see what happens next.  I forever long for the day when nations will seriously and sincerely try to settle differences peacefully.  I don’t want to think it is a pipe dream, but as time marches on, I’m afraid, my idealistic faith is far from hopeful in waking up to such a day!

Posted in Social Ethics, War & Peace | Tagged , , , , ,

America, Wake Up!

In the last section of the final chapter of his June 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Martin Luther King, Jr., focuses on the evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. Analyzing and assessing the persistence of discrimination, the wealth gap, and warmongering, he proclaims that the United States needs a “true revolution of values.” He characterizes the urgency of the moment and argues for a redistribution of income and assets, a restructuring of society that embraces a democratic socialism like Sweden, and stronger diplomatic efforts to build a safer, more harmonious world.

At the time, there were many critics of his book. People announced the end of the civil rights movement and eulogized King as a has-been who was now out of his element and could not conjure up any type of leadership for the future. Of course, these death-knell commentaries and punditries were primarily attempts to divert attention from the issues of poverty, institutional racism, and American exceptionalism by making ad hominem attacks against King. However, this xenophobia and fear mongering did not deter him from delivering countless speeches supporting a guaranteed annual income, educational opportunities, affordable housing, job training and retraining, and affirmative action. He was wont to aver, “the whole Jericho Road must be changed,” and pointed to altering the status quo through concerted, continual, and nonviolent confrontation with the socioeconomic and political structures, processes, policies, and services of our society.

In July of that year, King addressed the “present crisis in civil rights” by declaring the need for “a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” He asserted, “An edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.” By November and December of 1967, with the prodding of Marian Wright and Sen. Robert Kennedy, King announced the SCLC’s intention to organize a Poor People’s Campaign in the nation’s capital, beginning in the late spring/early summer of the following year: to demonstrate the plight of the needy, to demand fundamental change in capitalist structures and processes, and to insist monies supporting the futile war in Vietnam revert back adequately to fund the domestic War on Poverty. Subsequently, he set out to publicize this campaign of civil disobedience across the country and to secure commitments from people of every hue.

However, King got waylaid in Memphis, Tennessee, by the garbage workers’ strike, and he was assassinated before he could establish the campaign in D.C. For many, it was a relief that King was gone, for he was whittling away at those who still supported U.S. escalation of the war in Vietnam. It turned out he was right about that unwinnable involvement, right about the use of poor and disadvantaged young men to die on the battlefields, right about the crippling increase in the chasm between the rich and the poor, right about the white backlash and the entrenchment of institutional racism after the walls of segregation came tumbling down, right about racial profiling and the absence of community policing, right about the need for increasing the minimum wage, and right about the necessity of effectuating positive social change. Most of his critics were wrong, for they were ignorant of how the revolution King sought would redound to the favor of the entire citizenry. Their reactionary stance against his opposition to gradualism, or inertia, eventuated in the worsening of income inequality, the prison-industrial complex, Western imperialism, our resort to war, and the arrogation of power and authority to corporate America and narrow special interests.

King’s patriotic dissatisfaction with and dissent against U.S. domestic and foreign policies gave voice to those forced, or compelled, to be silent and straightened the backs of the numberless people suffering under “the iron feet of oppression.” We rarely hear that palpable, barefaced eloquence in our contemporary society! Instead, we listen to the many and sundry excuses for staying with the current state of affairs and not rocking the boat—despite the devastating turbulence of establishment structures and processes. We are fed the lines that revolution is not possible and change is unrealistic. Balderdash! The saying by George Santayana is so true: “Those who cannot remember the past [and learn from their mistakes] are condemned to repeat it.”

Even though a pervasive revolutionary spirit forged the formulation and formation of a new nation, we have thenceforward repeatedly decried and suppressed advocates of revolution–even if their causes were intent on constructive social change.  Often, many who would benefit from such change have opposed it because of overwhelming uncertainty, neurosis, or dread about being in a different environment.  Just as voters frequently cast ballots against their interests, today, would-be beneficiaries of change routinely have regularly allowed xenophobic people in power—who would profit from maintaining the status quo—to scare them into submission and discourage them from pursuit of a more egalitarian society.

The brilliant King was characterized as stupid, lacking in specificity regarding his blueprint for change, incapable of discussing American foreign policy, and unable to lead the ongoing nonviolent struggle for equity, justice, and peace.  He kept going anyhow, although suffering intermittently from bouts of depression.  In retrospect, we realize his critics were primarily blowing smoke, so to speak, and as Shakespeare put in the mouth of Macbeth, they were “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!”  They were trying to despoil King’s seeds of change by arguing he was on infertile ground and little, if anything, could come of it!  Unfortunately, many listened. Sadder still, many were colleagues in the earlier battles against Jim Crow, yet they joined in the calumny—abandoning King for greener pastures among perpetuators of the status quo!  They were blinded by the cataracts of greed, selfishness, complacency, and contentment and could no longer envision the bright future of an emerging beloved community. They opted for cowardice, popularity, prudence, and convenience, instead of for morality, ethics, compassion, and sacrifice.  They embraced and personified Mahatma Gandhi’s explication of the seven deadly social sins–wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice, and politics without principle–and relinquished King’s appeal for distributive justice and a more equitable democratic republic.  For shame!

King was smarter than most. After he received his Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston University, many prestigious universities sought him out to teach at their universities. King refused. He humbled himself and journeyed back to the South to become a country preacher and to become a pastor that stressed the importance of community outreach. Ralph Waldo Emerson captured it well: “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

The story of Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving was poignant for King. He lifted up the fact that as the character went up one of the Catskill Mountains to get away from his nagging wife and the drudgery of work, a picture of King George III of England was posted on a sign at the town’s inn; but when he came down from the mountain, twenty years later, after falling asleep from some powerful moonshine, a picture of George Washington was on the sign. According to King, the essence of the story was not the length of time Van Winkle had slept or that his wife was dead or he had a son who bore his name—oh, no! Rather, it was that “he had slept through a revolution that would alter the course of human history”! Van Winkle had slept through a revolution! Today, we, too, are sleeping through a revolution in our midst. Awake!

Awake! Before it is too late!

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