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Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. Had he lived, yesterday would have been his eighty second birthday.
There are two aspects of his message that I want to speak to today. The first is his call for equality for all, and the second is his call to love all.
On the equality issue, as we gather here more than forty two year after his death, the news is not all that good.
It is true that just two years ago this nation witnessed the swearing in of an African American President, and that is a sign of astonishing progress.
But single events like that, while dramatic moments in our nation’s life, are not the full picture. The question is, how is the African American community as a whole doing?
The primary measure of economic health that I use is the unemployment rate. I believe in distributive justice. If business is booming, with strong corporate profits, but the unemployment rate stays high or wages stay flat, I do not consider that to be a healthy economy. Only when everyone has a fair share of the wealth of the nation are we in a healthy state, a state of justice.
So, the unemployment rate is measure number one for me. And one of the primary measures I use for determining the progress of African Americans is their unemployment rate compared to the national unemployment rate; Someday, when those are the same, we will be closer to social equality.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has tracked African American employment and unemployment from 1972 on. In the early seventies, the African American unemployment rate stood at about twice that of the white unemployment rate.
In February of 1973 the national unemployment rate was 5%, but black unemployment was 9.5%; a little less than double the national rate. In December of 2010, the national unemployment rate was 9.4%. If nothing had changed since 1973, if unemployment in the Black community were in the same relationship to the national unemployment rate as it was in 1973, then we could expect the current rate of unemployment in the African American community to stand at 17.9%; but it was “only” 15.8%, still much higher than the rate for the nation as a whole. By that measure, in the 38 years since 1973, and in the forty two years since the death of Dr. King, we have advanced very little. In actual fact by 1989 the disparity became worse and black unemployment stood at more than double the national rate, so we have improved in the twenty plus years since then. Still, it has been marginal improvement overall.
The message is that despite the progress that has been made, despite the fact that we have elected an African American President of the United States, progress has been far too slow; we are failing our brothers and sisters, we are failing our children to many of whom have little hope of financial security, too many of whom are stuck in neighborhoods of poverty and in underfunded schools.
Dr. King had confronted legal segregation but was beginning to focus on economic disparities. Remember that he died supporting striking garbage collectors; he died fighting not segregation, but economic injustice.
But in both of these struggles–segregation and economic injustice–he used the weapon of love. And so, I come to a second issue: how we as a people treat one another, how we talk to one another, how we disagree with one another.
In the past few decades, disparagement of others and negative language of the worst kind has filled our political and social landscape.
Attacks upon individuals have become part of our political debate.
The characterization is: we are right; if they disagree with us they must be either ignorant or evil.
And that attitude seeps through into our political campaigning; in fact, it has become the basis of all too much of our political campaigning.
Unfortunately, it works. The American people say they do not like negative campaigning, but they reward it with their votes.
There are legitimate differences between Americans; differences over abortion rights, capital punishment, gun control, the role of government and whether it ought to provide welfare programs like health care and social security; and there are many more issues that divide us.
And there is nothing wrong with candidates pointing out these differences. But to paint your opponents as evil or immoral because they disagree with you, and because that is an effective way for you to be elected, that in and of itself an evil and immoral act. Politicians should stop doing that.
It doesn’t matter who started it. What matters is that it must stop. This characterization of one’s opponent as evil or immoral must stop.
Dr. King believed in the inherent goodness of human beings. Though he lived with segregation, though he was threatened by racists like the Ku Klux Klan, though he was thrown into jail, though he and those who followed him were beaten by police, and though he saw dogs set upon young children, and though he presided over the funeral services of far too many of his followers, still he believed in the inherent goodness of the human heart.
If anyone was in a position that justified the use of violence against oppression, it was the black population of the southern states in the 1960’s. And yet Dr. King’s message of non-violence struck a chord there. People died turning the other cheek, people died and refused to use violence to achieve their goals.
For Dr. King, non-violence was not a tactic, he said it was not. For him it was an orientation, a way of life.
Dr. King had studies Mahatma Gandhi’s use of Satyagraha. In Satyagraha, non-violence is not a tactic; it is a philosophy of life grounded in religion.
Satyagraha is not a passive response. If one is bullied and does not respond to the bullying out of far, that is not Satyagraha, that is not Dr. King’s non-violence. Both Gandhi and Dr. King confronted evil systems and acts; but both rejected the idea that there are evil people.
Both believed in the goodness within the human heart.
Dr. King was a Christian; he thought in Christian categories and spoke in Christian language. Yet his great inspiration was Gandhi the Hindu. These two had different categories of thought and yet each saw the divinity in the person in front of them. Each spoke to the divine in that person.
Beneath our differing religious beliefs there is that which understands this call of Gandhi and King, this call to our better selves.
Gandhi’s Satyagraha and King’s non-violence are not mere behavior; non-violence as mere behavior cannot sustain itself. It must be grounded in something deeper.
This is not a reasonable belief; it is not a practical belief. It is an example of the worst sort of idealism.
And yet it ahs the power to change the world. We know it can because it has already done so.
Since the shootings in Tucson, there have been many calls for civility in our national discussions. That is a good thing, and it could change our national debate. But mere civility, while a great improvement over the current state of affairs, would not have been enough for Martin Luther King. Civility is an outward form. It is a manner of behavior. Dr. King called his followers and called this nation to something far deeper. His was not a behavioral approach; he had an attitude approach, a belief approach that went far beyond mere behavior. He believed deeply in the divine nature within you and me. He believed in the human soul.
Dr. King believed that even the most die-hard racist southern racist could be turned, could be changed. Because he believed that deep down inside that person was a human heart with all of the potential of the human heart. And he believed that any person–the person standing in front of him blocking the march to Montgomery, the person who had just beaten children with a billy club, the person who had just shot and killed a civil rights demonstrator–Dr. King believed that even that person was a person of value, a person to be respected, a person to be loved, and a person who could become a friend.
The Words of Dr King:
While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.
To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”
Doctor King faced much greater difficulties than we. He faced oppression of the deepest and vilest kind, far worse than our disagreements with others.
Yet he believed in the transforming power of hope and love. He believed in the human heart and soul.
Can we not hearken to his call to change our vision of others? Can we not see beyond the temporal and mundane accretions that surround the heart of each person?
Can we not begin to glimpse what Gandhi and King saw in us and saw in others—the divine nature that lives within and that shines within no matter how encrusted it may be with needs and fears, prejudice and false practicality?
May we rise to the call not just of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but also to the call of our own souls, the call of our own longing to see without our fellow human beings and within ourselves that bright, shining spirit.
When love rule, civility follows.
When love rules, justice follows.
When love rules, everyone will have a place at the welcome table. There will be no enemies, no failing schools, no poverty, no one left out of our hearts caring, just justice for all.