Monday, January 17, 2011

Benediction for Martin

This afternoon I delivered a benediction for the Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration of our local NAACP.   Thinking of what to say, I was reminded of how Martin managed to weave together the Republican and Biblical strands of our history, as in his 1963 “Dream” speech. 

 This may be the sign of great public rhetoric in America.  Lincoln was a master at combining the two, and the Founding generation employed this technique skillfully, so that even Deists like Thomas Paine could invoke a divine blessing on the Revolution and its outcome, as in his pamphlet The Crisis:

I have as little superstition in me as any man living, but my secret opinion has ever been, and still is, that God Almighty will not give up a people to military destruction, or leave them unsupportedly to perish, who have so earnestly and so repeatedly sought to avoid the calamities of war.

The Biblical vocabulary lifts the people’s struggle for freedom above the plane of a naked collision of self-interest, endowing their aspirations with ultimate significance.  At the same time, the Republican strain, skeptical and plainspoken, demands that policy choices (war or no war, for instance) have some down-to-earth, secular justification.  “Thus sayeth the Lord” is not an argument likely to carry much weight in a pluralistic public square.

Well, with these ruminations in mind, here’s the brief blessing I gave at today’s event:

Grateful for the labors of those past, giants like Martin and Rosa,
Let us be thankful too for the work still to be done,
Grateful that we have an opportunity to serve, to make a difference,
To bring release to the captives and good news to the poor,
To proclaim liberty throughout the land and to build a more perfect union,
A union where every child will have an equal start in life,
A union that invests more in people than in weapons of war,
Where hate has no place
And the scales of justice do not discriminate,
Where those whose sweat and toil built this great land can share equitably in the abundance they helped create,
Where the dreams of the fathers become the children’s realities.
May God bless us in this task and bless the nation this was meant to be.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Dream Deferred?

As America commemorates Martin Luther King’s legacy, expect repeated clips of “I Have A Dream.” But most folks have forgotten the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” where Martin spoke, was as much a labor rally as a civil rights protest.

A. Philip Randolph, head of the biggest black union in the country, conceived the event. The money that paid for King’s microphone came from the United Auto Workers, enabling the orator to remind listeners that, a century after legal emancipation, African Americans still lived on “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Owing her citizens justice, the United States had instead given people of color a bad check—one marked “insufficient funds,” King said.

Unfortunately, little has changed. A recent report on the nation’s growing gap between rich and poor showed that African American women have a personal net worth of just $5 for every $40,000 owned by their white counterparts, a shocking statistic based on U.S. government numbers. Jobless rates for Latinos hover at thirteen percent and for blacks at sixteen percent, minorities whose children are roughly three times more likely than white youngsters to live in poverty. Foreclosures and layoffs have devastated what little savings these families possessed.

Yet as Congress convenes in Washington and state legislatures gather, budget makers are likely to cry “insufficient funds” when faced with bills for education, health care, public transportation, affordable college tuition and other programs poor and working people rely on for survival. Despite a black President in the White House and an Hispanic governor in New Mexico’s Round House, the temptation will be strong to balance the books on the backs of those who can least afford it.

The biggest deficits we face are moral rather than financial, as King warned, who prophesied shortly before his death that “we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”

"On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

Today he might add that a country where a young black man has a greater chance of going to prison than attending college needs restructuring. An economy where Warren Buffet’s secretary pays taxes at a higher rate than her billionaire boss needs to change. More and more Americans are teetering on the edge of destitution, just a pink slip or emergency room visit away from hunger and homelessness, while bonuses return to Wall Street and CEO salaries soar. Meanwhile, our nation spends more on war and armaments than the rest of the world combined. We are at a tipping point where, in Dr. King’s words, a “revolution of values” is in order.

Until then, his rhetoric remains an uncashed promissory note. And as ordinary Americans watch the “vast ocean of material prosperity” of the 1960’s recede like an outgoing tide, their elected representatives call for further belt-tightening and cuts to social welfare.

Are America’s vaults of opportunity really empty? Or do the coffers just need to be equitably distributed? The United States has unmatched resources, enough to guarantee every worker a living wage and dignified retirement, every child the schooling they need and a clean environment to grow up in. Only poverty of imagination keeps us from sharing in the Dream.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Incendiary Speech

Violent rhetoric has consequences.  And the politics of character assassination and personal destruction inevitably lead to outbursts or thuggery and hooliganism that threaten our democracy.

We saw it yesterday at a mall north of Tucson when a gunman opened fire at a “Congress on Your Corner” event, critically injuring Representative Gabrielle Giffords, killing a federal judge, a nine year old girl and at least three others.

Giffords had been targeted online by Sarah Palin’s Political Action Committee, which featured a map of her Ar;izona district framed in rifle cross hairs with an exhortation to “take aim.”

Yes, Jared Lee Loughner, the shooter, was a troubled young man.  But he wasn’t acting in a vacuum.  He was operating in an environment where Gifford’s congressional opponent held an M-16 fundraiser, offering the chance to blast away with automatic weapons in return for campaign cash, and where Sharron Angle, running for Congress in nearby Nevada told a right-wing radio host last summer that “if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying, ‘my goodness what can we do to turn this country around?’ I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.”

Naturally, yesterday’s gunfire has  been condemned by leaders on both sides of the aisle, Democrat and Republican.  But no one is taking responsibility for the kind of hateful, incendiary speech that ignites such vigilantism.  And as long as politicians like Palin are rewarded for shooting  from the lip, blood is likely to flow.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Sarah Palin & Osama Bin Laden

Last spring, Sarah Palin asked her followers to "take aim" at Democrats including Gabrielle Giffords, placing the Arizona representative's name in rifle cross hairs.  Today Congresswoman Giffords was shot through the brain at a constituent meet-up north of Tucson, critically injured in a flurry of gunfire where at least five others,  including a U.S. Federal Judge, were fatally wounded.

Is it a surprise that violent rhetoric leads to violent results?  That character assassination leads to actual mayhem?  Just how are Mama Grizzly's remarks different than Osama Bin Laden's exhortation to his followers to "kill Americans"?  The connections of the gunman to the Tea Party or radical Republican movements are unknown at this point.  Doubtless leaders of both parties will condemn the shooting.  But blood will continue as long as cult figures like Palin are permitted to shoot from the lip.