“These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wombs of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born.
We must move past indecision to action. …
Now let us begin. Now let us re-dedicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr. in
“Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” 1967
These words ring as vividly true today as they did when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. first uttered them at New York’s Riverside Church in 1967. There is a sense today, as there was then, that the world is cracking open, revealing both its deep dysfunctions and its powerful possibilities, and the choices each of us make as history unfolds matter deeply.
The deep dysfunctions caused by the triplets of materialism, racism, and militarism that King spoke about are revealed almost daily.
Hurricane Sandy made vivid for so many the costs of denial on climate change and how damaging continued inaction is; that inaction will continue to impact the poorest and most vulnerable populations most, like residents of the far Rockaways. The major obstacle to transformation is our addiction to a lifestyle that is unsustainable in the extreme and the huge influence big oil and other dirty energy companies exert on policy.
Incarceration rates have risen by 500 percent since the late 1970s even as crime rates have remained fairly steady, largely due to criminal prosecution and mandatory sentencing as a result of the war on drugs. African American men and people of color are disproportionately targeted in this system. The city of Philadelphia currently spends approximately $150,000 to educate one child from kindergarten through senior year, while taxpayers would pay more than twice that amount—about $330,000—to incarcerate a person for 10 years.
The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the near daily gun deaths in Philadelphia are symptoms of our violent society and our inability to prioritize the well-being of all our children over a misperception that our weapons can keep us safe.
The most blatant example of militarism remains the Afghanistan war, now in its eleventh year, our longest. Over 2,000 U.S. soldiers have died in combat and the rate at which soldiers or veterans are dying from suicide has eclipsed the number dying in combat. The U.S. spends more on its military than all other countries combined, 60 percent of our discretionary budget. The impacts of such spending include massive deficits and the dismantlement of programs supportive of the poor.
And yet “out of the wombs of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born” made of compassion and experimenting with peace.
As well as revealing the costs of inaction on climate change, Hurricane Sandy uncovered compassion and the willingness of so many to reach out and help those impacted by the hurricane. This sense of compassion in the wake of disaster keeps revealing itself and can be channeled as one source of fuel for transformation.
There is a building movement actively questioning our prison system ignited in part by Michelle Alexander’s powerful book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Huge movements of students, teachers, and parents are focused on examining and proposing solutions to the issues facing public schools. More and more ordinary people are learning about the realities and consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline and asking questions and inviting change.
The economic crisis is causing many to question our huge and disproportionate federal investment in war-making. Soldiers are returning from Afghanistan asking questions about why there are so many obstacles for them and the people they met in Afghanistan to live a simple life and how we can shift our priorities.
I often consider that sentence that King quotes by Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward justice.” Some days it seems as though the arc is bending another direction and justice is out of reach, but my sense is that the Spirit can be bruised and traumatized, but not broken. In each of us beats a heart longing for connection and a Spirit which hungers for justice.
Everywhere the Spirit is rising, striving to bring forth a revolution made of love. Such a revolution will require, as the Civil Rights movement did, more than inspiring leaders, but many, many ordinary people on the ground, willing to take the risks of faith and create together a new way of living based on compassion, justice and peace.
To what work would Martin Luther King, Jr. call us today? This is a powerful question. What is your answer?