The events in Ferguson, Missouri, quickly transported me back to my teenage years and the turbulent and tense days in our nation as the African-American people rose up against the injustice of segregation. What has come to be called the Civil Rights Movement has been idealized as the years have passed. However, as a young kid watching the images of riots and cities aflame flash across our black-and-white TV, I did not feel idealistic, but rather I felt frightened, unnerved and unsettled. And…I was viewing those events from a distance!
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. witnessed the pain of his people living under the cruel hand of segregation up close and personal. He saw his people tear-gassed, attacked by dogs, beaten with clubs, shot, jailed and even hung from tree limbs. He witnessed a people who had the boot of oppression clamped on their necks. He was severely critical of those who oppressed his people. He refused to accept any solution other than equality. The dark days grew even darker as Dr. King’s people were battered and bruised by those who were unwilling to give up their power. Those entrenched powers, both political and religious, tried to persuade Dr. King to slow down, that change would come, but it would take some time. Dr. King, however, believed that justice delayed was justice denied. He knew that “justice did not roll in on the wheels of inevitability,” therefore he refused to be silenced or to moderate the pace of change. Instead, he called upon his people to ramp up their sacrifice and endure additional suffering in order to gain their freedom.
Even as he spoke harshly to those who perpetrated the evil of segregation, however, his powerful voice unfailingly proclaimed hope. His followers took to heart words spoken by the ancient prophet Isaiah and reiterated by Dr. King: “Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked will be made straight and the rough places a plain.” Dr. King assured those who looked to him for encouragement and hope that one day their “eyes would see the glory of the coming of the Lord!” This hope was based on his firm belief that God could not be marginalized, that the “Lord would see them through.” Dr. King warned them that the only truly mortal sin was to “live without hope.”
Several years ago, I attended a Martin Luther King, Jr., dinner to celebrate the civil rights victories achieved forty years earlier as well as to embrace the continuing hope that equality and freedom would one day be achieved for all of God’s people. After that inspiring event concluded, I was walking out the door with a young, African-American activist. I said, “That was awesome. Dr. King was a prophet of God, the greatest man of his generation.”
The young man looked at me and said, “King is dead. Who is going to lead us now?”
I still think long and hard about that question. I keep praying for a leader of the stature of Dr. King who will lead our world to the Promised Land, but I continue to be profoundly disappointed. As I look around, I see too much justice delayed and denied. I mute the TV and lower my eyes as videos roll that capture beheadings, shootings in schools and synagogues, tanks and troops rolling into one country after another, killing on our own streets and cities ablaze with violence. I get annoyed when it is said that it takes time to fix things, because nothing EVER seems to get fixed. I go faithfully to the polls and vote only to be rewarded with the same old same old. It’s discouraging, even depressing.
What is going on in our world is nothing new. Muslims and Jews have been killing each other for centuries and now Muslims killing Muslims has been added to the mix. Russia took only a brief break from violently forcing its will upon its neighbors. Kids have been dying in the streets for years, whether by shootings or shooting up. The poor get poorer. Homeless shelters sell out early. An insidious greed reigns supreme. Entrenched and powerful interests seek to abort change by contaminating the political process with money, after all a dysfunctional government is just what the doctor ordered to maintain the status quo. And now, regardless of how you feel personally about the events in Ferguson, our cities are in flames again. What will be next? Unleashed dogs? Mob rule? Oppression? Suppression? Depression? Recession? Maybe Paul Simon was right that “after changes upon changes, we are more or less the same.” His lyrics, however, prompt me to ask more questions: Is the apocalypse upon us? If it isn’t, who will lead us now? Is there any hope for justice and peace? If there is hope, then who will lead us now? But as the martyr Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote before his execution, “They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.”
But then, an answer! It came upon me like a thief in the night: Waiting for someone to lead us now is dodging responsibility. WE MUST LEAD US NOW! As Dr. King suggested, the people of “good will” must raise their voices and be heard over the incessant din of negativity and hopelessness, over the constant clamor of hate and despair. We must speak! We must be heard. We must take a stand and not allow the “same old same old” to reign supreme. Justice must NEVER be delayed by indifference and peace must not be reduced to only a dream. All of God’s children, whether black or white, Asian or Latino, gay or straight, rich or poor, oppressed or free must never give up hope, for it is indeed a mortal sin to live without it.
WHY we take a stand is rooted in the Divine values of justice and peace.
WHERE we take a stand against violence and injustice is up to us.
HOW we take a stand is limited only by our imaginations.
WHEN we take a stand is a matter of great urgency; otherwise, more bodies will end up lying lifeless on our streets.
AND THAT is simply intolerable.
John E. Holt, Cotuit, Massachusetts