MLK + 50: In a Time of Danger, Creating a Year of Truth & Transformation
One month ago, it seemed clear who would be elected President. Now it is not at all clear whether beginning January 20, our President will be a politician with a checkered political past and an incrementally liberal /progressive present, or someone who has the personal characteristics of a bully and the political program of a fascist. (These are my own personal assessments, not those of The Shalom Center.)
That choice is so unprecedented and the election results are so uncertain only because our country is in a deep spiritual, cultural, and political crisis. The crisis will not go away on Election Day or Inauguration Day.
But that does not mean we can ignore Election Day, or waste it with an irrelevant vote. The most important spiritual action that you who are members and friends of The Shalom Center can do in the next weeks is to plan with the Presidential and Congressional campaigns of your choice to get out the vote. Register voters. Canvass in person or by phone. Call on Election Day to remind them. Offer to drive people to the polls if they need help.
Are these really “spiritual” acts? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said of the Selma March that he was praying with his legs. And in 1972, he wrote the New York Times to ask how Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah would respond in the election of that year –- and he publicly embraced one of the Presidential candidates (George McGovern, rather than Richard Nixon).
Today, in this even deeper crisis of the American spirit, voting can be praying with our hands.
What to do after the election? Whoever wins the Presidency, there will be danger that the intense tensions that surfaced during the election campaign may lead to violence, and then any President may respond by clamping down on political unrest with more intrusive surveillance and more use of the police or National Guard to impose “law and order.”
For concerned citizens of any political persuasion to retreat into sullen quietude will only infuriate the most enraged into outright violence.
So the best path forward will be to pursue acts of nonviolent, loving creativity that reach across the present barricades to nurture the seeds of a new society and challenge institutions that are domineering and destructive.
At this crucial moment, there is great potential value in the fact that the fiftieth anniversary of the last year in the life of Martin Luther King is fast approaching. This year will stretch from the 50th anniversary of April 4, 1967 -- when he gave the “Riverside speech” at Riverside Church in New York City -- to the 50th anniversary of April 4, 1968, when he was murdered.
We intend to make this year -- the year of "MLK + 50" -- into a Year of Truth and Transformation.
The Riverside speech, entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” not only opposed the Vietnam War. That in itself broke new ground for Dr. King -- and for Rabbi Heschel, sitting beside him in full agreement. Indeed, many of their previous supporters thought it a great mistake to go beyond the civil-rights struggle and alienate a friendly President.
Dr. King's words went indeed “beyond” Vietnam to name racism, militarism, and materialism as deadly triplets afflicting America, and to call for an American “revolution in values.”
And the entire speech was rooted in Dr. King’s profound commitment to active nonviolence. To seeking what of human need and Godly value could be addressed even in “enemies” and could be turned toward the creation of the Beloved Community.
Fifty years after Dr. King spoke, the triplets he named have produced some monstrous offspring:
- Materialism run amok has created new billionaires who can flood elections with their money, while leaving the poor and the middle class to lose any hope of prosperity and even their sense of dignity.
- Materialism and racism have coupled to birth corporate greed so extreme as to be prepared to burn our planet for the sake of profit, and to wound most deeply the communities of color in the US and the world.
- Militarism and racism have coupled to birth mass incarceration, police violence, and ever-present gun homicides.
What could all of us be doing to bring Dr. King’s wisdom and the symbolic power of his life and memory to bear on our present crisis?
1) Set as a goal that in your own town, your own congregation, your own campus, your own neighborhood, even your own home, on or about April 4, 2017, people will gather to read the Riverside speech, discuss how to apply it today, and plan how to act to heal America from the triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism.
2) Beginning right now, spread the word. Ask your local MLK Day of Service Committee to add an April 4 Read-the-Speech observance to their plans. Ask your congregation, your PTA, your college, to announce an April 4 gathering and schedule speakers.
3) During the year that follows, all of us can plan specific times and places to challenge the “triplets” in two ways: Truth and Transformation -- Truth about the past and present, Transformation toward what Dr. King called the “Beloved Community”:
a) For example, choose an Exxon-related place to hold a weekly vigil on the theme “Exxon lied, & people died”; (b) At the same time, organize a neighborhood solar-energy co-op.
Or (a) Join the fight for a decent budget for the public schools in your own city, while (b) also organizing Sunday “freedom schools” to connect the dots between personal troubles and structural disempowerment, and teach how to work for profound social change
4) After a year of grass-roots work of Truth and Transformation, we look toward April 4, 2018, as a Day of Action, Atonement, and At-ONE-ment. The day might include vigils or dawn-to-dusk fasting called by religious communities, teach-ins called by students and faculty at colleges, work stoppages called by labor unions or businesses, acts of nonviolent civil disobedience called by various social-activist groups, etc.
The Shalom Center has already begun sowing the seeds of what we are calling “MLK + 50 — A Jubilee Year of Truth and Transformation.”
MLK’s deep commitment to nonviolence and a politics of love could become an important aspect of uniting all the “left-out” Americas, even some of those who now see each other as enemies. Toward a transformed society in which none of us would be left out, marginalized, disempowered.
And “us” includes our Mother Earth. One of the most important differences that has arisen in the election campaign is a choice of policy toward the climate crisis: Dismiss it as a hoax perpetrated by China to weaken the American economy, or take vigorous action to move from the carbon-burning economy into one based on renewable energy sources -- while creating millions of new jobs to make the change, and assisting those workers that will be most hurt by the transition.
This policy choice in US politics does not affect America alone. For the carbon-burning practices and policies of American society have great bearing on the ability of the human species to respond to this crisis.
And in this arena even more than others, time wasted without action means many lives lost –- the lives of human communities and of many irrecoverable strands in Earth’s web of life. In the Riverside speech, MLK spoke of “the fierce urgency of Now.” Fifty years later, the urgency is even fiercer.
Do we live in a time of great danger? Yes. Out of this thorn-bush, Danger, we can pluck this flower -- Transformation.
Please help The Shalom Center spread "MLK + 50" with a Year of Truth and Transformation -- and continue healing the deep wounds of our society, by making a contribution through the maroon "Contribute" button on the left margin of this page.