Sunday, August 28, 2011

Freedoms Call: A Tribute to Dr. King

Although hurricane Irene postponed the dedication of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial on the Mall, I am reminded that today is the anniversary of Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech in his march on Washington. Dr. King ended that speech with the gospel cry, “free at last, thank God all mighty, we are free at last”. If there was every an oration that spoke to power of being called to the freedom that every person so justly deserves, this speech was it. The irony of the remembrance of this event and the unveiling of Dr. King’s memorial with the calls for a return of our country to some private republican ideal is almost too much to bear. Literally in the shadow of his statue, Tea Party activists are calling for a rescinding of affirmative action, governmental oversight of civil liberty and, while flawed, a health care act the brings health insurance to millions of poor people. All this done under the banner of freedom; freedom from government, freedom to earn as much as you please, and freedom to ignore those less fortunate than yourself. Somehow I don’t think this is what Dr. King had in mind by freedom. As Cornel West put it in the NY Times, King would "want a revolution not a memorial" (NYTimes 8/27/11).

Freedom is not just a freedom from what we think oppresses us, freedom is a freedom to practice our religion, care for those in need and live a life of economic dignity. Freedom is not just liberty, freedom entails a responsibility. We are called to freedom as much as we are called out of freedom to change the world.

The question now is and has always been “will we answer the call to freedom, not just for ourselves but for those less fortunate than us?” Will we be able to answer the call to freedom by permitting such hate mongering to be displayed openly for all to see, or would we be better off driving that hatred underground where it won’t get any traction?

Freedom is not freedom to say anything we want or express any truth that comes to our minds. Civil society does not exist to permit just any freedom. We don’t allow child pornography, why would we allow hatred to be so expressed? Will the truth set us free? It depends on which truth.

One of our principles as Unitarian Universalists implores us to affirm and promote a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”  Of all of our principles, I find this one the most difficult. Just who is it that decides what truth is? Is truth relative to each of us or is there an absolute truth? How do we even know where to look if truth is located only within our own hearts?

We live in a world, post 9/11, wherein freedom is seen to be more complicated than it once was. Charles Black, a Yale law professor asks his first year law students: Suppose a man has planted an atomic bomb in New York City and has been apprehended by the police. Are the police allowed to torture the man to learn the bomb’s whereabouts? Is torture ever morally correct? Most students respond no to the first question, the constitution prohibits torture but surprisingly they say yes to the second, that is torture is morally correct, even torture to death, if it saves millions of lives. When asked about this moral inconsistency, most replied that there is a difference between our laws that protect our freedoms and our individual conscience to save lives at any cost.

I would argue that the two cannot be separated. That the very laws that protect our freedoms, such as freedom from unlawful search and seizure, are the same laws that guide our moral conscience. That the act of torture, regardless of the ends is categorically wrong. Not so much because it denies the worth of the evil doer but because of it denies our humanity as torturers or supporting torture. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who proclaimed that to deny another’s worth is to deny our own worth (see the Divinity School Address). If we deny the freedoms of others so entitled we deny our own freedom as human beings, whether it is the right to freedom, jobs, health or shelter.

Freedom calls us to protect the freedom of all, because we are a part of that all. This is what the Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, called the I-Thou nature of God. As soon as we start treating others as objects, as "it’s", as means to an end, we deny our essential humanity. We are an “I” because you are a “Thou”, and God lives in the relationships between us. Our freedom calls on us to help those closest to us. Our freedom calls on us to protest, to witness against injustice. How soon we have forgotten the lessons of 9/11 and Dr. King. Now is the time to respond to the freedom calling.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Monday, August 15, 2011


Classism is a failing of a community to find and hold its soul. We seek to create material, professional and educational status because we are so desperate for recognition from communities too large to care. Status is not the same as role. Some higher status comes with certain roles, doctors for instance. But holding that status as a marker of exclusivity is the disease rooted in a lack of community.

All oppression is about dominance, and keeping people down economically is a core component of this. Dominance is a result of unchecked capitalism, but not a necessary component of it. As Adam Smith, the very father of capitalism wrote “Wherever there is property there is inequality….By having the minds constantly employed on the arts of luxury, people grow …dastardly” (As quoted in How Much do We Deserve by Richard Gilbert, Skinner House 2001) My mother, who came from the upper class used to say that class is the greatest divide. Of course this is from the same woman who, when her grandchildren asked her what a household convenience was in her day, she replied “servants”

We hardly deal with the economic realities that affect each member of our society as whole. Viewing class changed with the financial meltdown and subsequent aftermath. In fact, we have been in this position twice before, during the gilded age of the robber barons and the roaring twenties. Now the real question in the press is the middle class disappearing? (see The Atlantic Sept. 2011 “Can the Middle Class Survive?”

While that is important, the deeper question is what happened to the soul of our communities that has fostered this new unbridled classism?

The question is, how can we counter this growing classism which is deeply symptomatic with the growing economic disparity this recession has wrought? Creating jobs, which ought to be the job of our government is too large an issue for my topic today, but creating community so that we can counter the growing classism of our little corner of the world is something we can do.

With Grace and Grit,  John