"I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word[.]"
--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1964
The start of this New Year finds America at an inflection point as wars and terrorism abroad are echoed in violence, suspicion, and fear at home. How will we meet the moment? Hundreds of organizations and individuals have signed on to the urgent message of the campaign We Are Better Than This: “We grieve the many lives that have been lost or painfully transformed in recent weeks through extreme acts of violence. And we are appalled by the surge of divisive rhetoric that sows the seeds of more violence to come. A dangerous tide of hatred, violence, and suspicion is rising in America—whether aimed at Arab and Muslim Americans, women and the places we seek health care, Black people, immigrants and refugees, or people just going about their daily lives. This tide is made more dangerous by easy access to guns. When has hate ever led to progress? Is this really what we want America to be? We are better than this.”
We are better than this. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German Protestant theologian who died opposing Hitler’s holocaust, believed that the test of the morality of a society is how it treats its children. We flunk Bonhoeffer’s test every hour of every day in America as we let the violence of guns and the violence of poverty relentlessly stalk and sap countless child lives. A child or teen is killed by a gun every three and a half hours, nearly 7 a day, 48 a week. More than 15.5 million children are poor and children are the poorest age group in America—the world’s largest economy. And the younger children are the poorer they are. Children of color, already the majority of our youngest children, soon will be the majority of our children in 2020.
Millions of them lack their basic needs for enough food, decent housing, health care and quality early childhood supports during their years of greatest brain development. And over six decades after Brown v. Board of Education, a majority of children of color are still waiting for a fair and equal chance to learn. A majority of all fourth and eighth grade public school students and more than 80 percent of Black and 73 percent of Hispanic students in these grades cannot read or compute at grade level and face dim futures as a jobless landscape looms. They also lack assurance that their lives matter and are at great risk of being sucked into a prison pipeline.
Those of us who remember McCarthyism see familiar signs in the hateful rhetoric and hatred aimed at Muslims, refugees, and immigrants. Even children report being bullied and attacked and hearing hateful words. And the pervasive and relentless threat of violence and terror continues to attack and frighten children and adults from Syria to Paris to California and in our cities and rural areas.
There is another way. Once again, Dr. King’s words lead us there—through a world that often can feel suffocated by “starless midnight” to belief in a new day. He warned us that excessive materialism, militarism, racism, and poverty could be America’s undoing but that it was up to us to act and combat these evils. The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, introducing Dr. King to a Rabbinical Assembly shortly before he was assassinated, said: “Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States. God has sent him to us.” Heschel continued, “His mission is sacred…The situation of the poor in America is our plight, our sickness. To be deaf to their cry is to condemn ourselves.”
Heschel believed, “Martin Luther King, Jr., is a voice, a vision, and a way. I call upon every Jew,” and I would add, every person of faith, “to harken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow his way. The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of Dr. King.” I would add the world.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech Dr. King also told us he had “the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” And he said: “Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts... Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
Let’s hear and decide that this is the voice we will follow into this New Year. And let us pray and act for an end to preventable poverty and violence in our nation beginning with our children.