Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 9/2/2003
How do we turn memory into hope?
How do we transform a memory of some transformative past event into a seed of birthing for the future?
In the summer of 1963, I was in the crowd of about 240,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial who heard Martin Luther King and many others demand "Jobs and Freedom."
Forty years later, I was myself one of the speakers at the Lincoln Memorial in a rally called to remember and renew the energy of that day.
The atmospheres of those two days could not have been more different: in 1963, glorious hope; in 2003, dogged resistance and a different kind of hope.
In 1963 I was almost 30, and my son or daughter — we didn't yet know which — was with me too, at the age of minus-eight months. That moment of family hope was imbued with the faintly but only faintly — bitter taste of morning sickness, the very first time that very morning. The mixture, hope with a faintly bitter aftertaste, was a perfect model for the scene before us.
People had died to get us to that lawn before the brooding Lincoln — yet the day, the event, and the country were glorious. President Kennedy was no civil-rights activist — he opposed the March till it was almost over — but the country was clearly on the move toward change, and the Kennedy Administration was reluctantly responsive. Young people around the world were toppling governments and transforming expectations.
In 2003, the government of the United States was again initiating change — but this time the changes looked toward transferring power and wealth to a small cabal of the super-rich, Big Oil, a few other favored global corporations, and the US military, reversing the accomplishments we had marched for, and won, in 1963.
The rally in 2003 not only commemorated the March of 40 years ago — but more important, its organizers announced that it was initiating a 15-month "rolling mobilization" aimed at getting millions of voters to the polls from communities of color and the poor. People who are being deeply damaged by the present rulers of the United States but who usually feel too dispirited to vote too hopeless.
So the Lincoln Memorial in August 2003 was a time and place when hope came much harder and more urgently than forty years before, with far more memories of bitter moments.
Among the speakers at this rally were stalwarts from the past two generations: Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King III, and Congressman John Lewis; Bob Edgar, head of the National Council of Churches; Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Walter Fauntroy, and Rev. Al Sharpton; the heads of the National Organization for Women, National Education Association, MoveOn.org, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, Jim Zogby of the Arab American Institute; Mahdi Bray from the American Muslim Society, and the leaders of several other versions of Islam in America; Leslie Cagan of United for Peace and Justice.
(Mine was the only voice from an explicitly Jewish organization; but Cagan went out of her way to introduce herself individually as a progressive Jew. See her speech in the "US-Iraq" section of our "Peace" region on this Website.)
One of the speakers mentioned that in 1963 there had been no woman speaker. I was astonished, and then realized I was astonished because in 1963 that had seemed no normal as to be unremarkable.
Besides us "alter kockers," there were also a number of young Black and Latino activists and the (white woman) head of the US Student Association: new to the streets and the election booth.
When I spoke, I drew very much on echoes of two stories of hope and transformation that are deep at the core both of Jewish values and of general American values — the story of the Exodus from slavery, and the Declaration of American Independence. I drew on them as the rally itself drew on the Great March — not only to remember but to renew.
I began with an ancient Jewish prayer that I renewed and transformed by using not the metaphor of "Lord" and "King" for God but the metaphor of "Breathing-spirit of the Universe."
It is a prayer Jews say when in the spiral of time we reach a moment of transformation — not merely a commemoration of the past, but a birthing of the future:
"Blessed are You, the Breathing-spirit of the world, who has filled us with life, lifted us up, and carried us to this moment. Barukh attah Yahhh, elohenu ru'akh ha'olam, sheh-hekhianu v'kimanu v'higianu lazman hazeh."
And then, to connect with our Muslim brothers and sisters throughout the world, I began as well with a version of the way they begin. They say, "Bismillah er-rachman er-rachim." "In the Name of God Who pours out compassion, Who responds with compassion." Roughly equivalent to the cognate Hebrew words, "B'shem elohim rachamim."
What I said was, "In the Name of the God of compassion, the God of justice, the God Who calls us into the beloved community." Drawing on King's vision of the future, connecting it — as no one had forty years before --- with the Muslim vision, and connecting the Jewish vision with both, neither merging them nor making more distance between them. Another way of turning memory into renewal.
"In the Name of the God Who forbids the killing of innocents — whether in the churches and back roads of Alabama and Mississippi or the street corners of Detroit, whether on the tip of Manhattan or in the neighborhoods of Baghdad, whether on the buses of Jerusalem or in the apartment houses of Gaza City.
"In the Name of the God Whose very name in ancient Hebrew is not a Hebrew word but a breathing that includes and transcends all languages, all peoples, all species — the name that can only be pronounced by breathing — YHWH."
I invited the crowd for a moment to look into the faces close around — each face so different, each face the face of God. And to look at the green faces of God as well - the grasses and the trees - for what the trees breathe out is what we breathe in, what we breathe out is what the trees breathe in.
Each face, the Face of God.
So I invoked the Name of God Whose Wind, the Rushing-spirit of the world, comes sometimes as a gentle breeze of comfort and sometimes as a hurricane of transformation: —
The night before Dr. King was killed, he spoke of standing as Moses stood, on a mountain top where he could see the promised land of freedom — the land he might not enter, but the people would.
Ten days later he was to have taken part in the Passover Seder with his good friend, co-worker, co-marcher, co-visionary Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel - but by that time he had passed over into a different promised land.
The Passover Seder calls us to remember that the power of Pharaoh vanished before the hurricane of transformation that split the Red Sea and carried a people into freedom.
Yet the Passover Seder looks not only at those days long ago but at the present and the future. For the Seder teaches us that in EVERY generation a Pharaoh will rise against us to enslave and destroy us. And it teaches us that in EVERY generation, every human being must go out from slavery to freedom. Every one of us must become the midwives who defied Pharaoh's murderous orders. Every one of us must become Pharaoh's own daughter who broke the Pharaoh's law to save a life; must become Moses, Miriam, Aaron.
Who and what is Pharaoh in our own generation?
The present government of the United States has attacked our neighbors, violated our rights, broken our laws, endangered our children, and thwarted our hopes.
The present government of the United States is strengthening racism, trying to reverse the great achievements of those who stood here 40 years ago — not only by opposing affirmative action, but by imprisoning two million people, the highest number in the world, mostly people of color.
The present government of the United States has handed over to the extremely wealthy and to great corporations tax breaks of hundreds of billions. Even the rich cannot eat more food than they do now, wear more clothes than they do now, live in more mansions than they do now. There is only one thing they can buy with those hundreds of billions of dollars - MORE POWER.
The present government of the United States is bleeding dry our own city and state governments so that they can no longer provide what the people need — health care, schools, pensions, even local police and fire protection.
The present government of the United States lied to its own citizens and broke our sacred obligations to all peoples, violating the United Nations Charter to undertake an aggressive war against a people so weak and helpless as to be a threat to no other country — sending our own men and women to die and be wounded and sickened alongside tens of thousands of another people.
The present government of the United States is plundering our forests, poisoning our air, and raising high the very corporations of Big Oil that are scorching the earth and endangering the futures of our children.
The present government of the United States has endangered freedom of the press by encouraging extreme concentration of control of the news media, and by erecting high walls of secrecy around the public business of the government.
The present government of the United States has undermined the civil liberties of its citizens and shattered the human rights of its immigrants.
The present government of the United States is putting in power judges who will uphold corporate interests against those of the people, and will attack the personal dignity, privacy, and freedom of women and gay & lesbian people.
The present government of the United States has undermined the labor movement through which workers seek to protect themselves against the greed of great corporations.
In our own generation, who is Pharaoh? The present government of the United States.
How do Americans respond to such abuses of power? We remember how Americans respond:
We hold these truths to be self-evident:
That all human beings are born with equal dignity and worth, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights: —
to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;
to the sharing of community;
to Jobs and Freedom — a rhythm of worthy work and sacred rest that frees time for family, neighborhood, active citizenship, and the spirit;
to a life-sustaining share of the earth's abundance;
to peace among all peoples;
and to a responsible relationship amidst the whole web of life upon this planet.
Just as I have echoed and renewed in the list of these abuses the great indictment of King George III drawn by the Declaration of 1776, just as I have both echoed the Preamble's profound political theory of what lies beneath the Declaration and transformed its political theory to include a new vision of what are the rights and responsibilities of human beings in community, so I renew and enrich its crucial call to action:
Like our forebears, we hold THIS truth to be self-evident: That whenever any government or corporation becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right, the duty, of the people to alter or abolish it and to recreate the beloved community.
When our forebears — some of them; in those days it was just the men, just the whites — asserted that truth, they took up the sword of war. We know today - we learned it forty years ago — that we can win a deeper, fuller, more just American revolution by taking up the plowshares of vigorous nonviolence.
In the Name of the God of compassion, the God of justice, the God Who is the Breath of Life — are we prepared to act? Are we prepared to recreate the community of nonviolent action? Are we prepared to become the midwives who resisted Pharaoh, to become Pharaoh's own daughter who broke the law to save the life of Moses, to become Moses, to become Aaron, to become Miriam?
Are we prepared to face the Pharaoh of today --- by lobbying, by voting, by demonstrating in the streets, by sitting down in those offices, those pyramids of death, that Big Oil builds?
Are we — forty years after we first gathered before this brooding Lincoln, forty years after we gathered to hear the dreaming, organizing King are we ready to become once again the beloved community?
Are we ready to draw on our memory of the past in order to transform it into our hope of transformation?
* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the director of The Shalom Center; the author of Godwrestling — Round 2 (Jewish Lights), Down-to-Earth Judaism (Morrow), and Seasons of Our Joy (Beacon); the co-author of A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven: The Jewish Life-Spiral as a Spiritual Path(Farrar Straus & Giroux; now in paperback); and the editor of Trees, Earth, & Torah: A Tu B'Shvat Anthology (Jewish Publication Society) and Torah of the Earth: Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought (Jewish Lights). All these can be ordered through the Books section of this Website.