All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. – Edmund Burke
Today in the Christian calendar is the First Sunday in Lent. The Christian Church is speaking about sin, about repentance, about reconciliation. But this is based on the earlier legacy of the prophetic Jewish voice. In the story of the flood, we see a god who feels for man, who regrets, grieves and remembers, and who will set his bow in the clouds to remember. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who presented the Judaism and World Peace Award to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on December 7, 1965, “Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.”
In a recent board meeting of a wonderful NGO on whose board I sit, we talked about the recent celebration of the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would have been 86 years old this past January 15th, and in whose honor we have been holding, for many years, an interfaith celebration in which we march around the City of Hayward and then gather to read excerpts from his writings, his speeches, his sermons. Because we are living in violent times, as he lived in violent times, there was a discussion about whether the event could have had a more thematic content, in light of the campaign that indeed, Black Lives Matter, and the comment was made that this celebration was not meant to be political.
When we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, in August of 2013, the South Alameda Peace and Justice Coalition discussed the content of a banner we were going to order for use at a commemoration to be held in Hayward on that day. We wanted to get away from the “I have a dream” speech, because as important as that speech was, given at the march in 1963, by April of 1967, when Dr. King addressed the people at Riverside Church in New York and pronounced his speech against the war in Vietnam, he had traveled eons and many miles from his stance in 1963. The Riverside Church speech was given by a man much changed from the man who delivered the 1963 speech; it was a difficult speech, and it was probably the reason that King was violently assassinated the following year.
He says, in explaining why he was breaking a silence of two years on the war, “Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”
Do we know the world in which we live? A world where, just in 2014, from Michael Brown in Ferguson, to Ezell Ford, a disabled man in Los Angeles, Omar Abrego, beaten to death also in Los Angeles, Darrien Hunt in Utah, twelve-year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, Tanesha Anderson, schizophrenic and bipolar, also in Cleveland, Ohio, Rumain Brisbon, whose pill bottle was mistaken for a gun, in Phoenix, Arizona, John Crawford III, shot in a Walmart in Beavercreek Ohio while buying a BB gun for his children, Keith Vidal, in Southport, North Carolina, an 18 year-old schizophrenic, tasered and then shot, Kajieme Powell in St. Louis, Missouri, Akai Gurley, in Brooklyn, who was walking down a flight of stairs, “I can’t breathe” Eric Garner, put into an illegal chokehold that ended his life, Michelle Cusseaux, also schizophrenic and bipolar, shot also in Phoenix, Arizona after her mother called the police to take her to an inpatient facility, Jack Jacquez, shot twice after police burst into his home in Rocky Ford, Colorado for no known reason, Jason Harrison in Dallas, Texas, another schizophrenic and bipolar man whose mother had called 911 for help for her son, Yvette Smith in Bastrop County, Texas, shot in the hip and stomach twice for some sort of domestic dispute, Louis Rodriguez of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, beaten, choked and restrained when he was trying to calm his wife down in a dispute between her and their daughter, Matthew Pollow of Palm Beach, Florida, a man with history of mental disturbance who apparently wielded a screwdriver and was shot and killed for his pains… (every 28 hours, a black man, woman or child is killed in the US by police or security forces).
I could go on for another hour with the other victims in 2014, and in 2013, 12, 11, 10… but I think by now you have gotten the point. Of course, as one of our members said, all lives matter, but unfortunately the disproportionate amounts of those who are being attacked and killed by police are of color, black or brown. And in almost 28 years of practice as a criminal attorney, I saw Jim Crow alive and well in the courts of New Jersey, where black and latino defendants were often arrested for crimes for which their white counterparts were let go; their sentences were also longer and harsher. This is my experience. This is why, in a time of unbalance, to say that all lives matter does not resolve the issue. This is the time to break the silence, to paraphrase Dr. King.
King himself tells us why he is speaking out: “Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”
In these incredible words he is tying what he later calls “the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism.” He is relentless throughout this speech, speaking truth to power, setting our world on fire: “My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”
Already in his letter from Birmingham Jail, written in April of 1963, when imprisoned and undergoing harsh conditions of incarceration, he responds to the protests of white ministers decrying the Birmingham campaign with “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… Later in the letter he talks about why they could not wait, and declared that they had waited for these God-given rights long enough, quoting Chief Justice Earl Warren, who had said in 1958 that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
And echoing Thoreau and Gandhi before him, he states in this letter that not only was civil disobedience justified in the face of unjust laws, but that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Throughout his later speeches, Dr. King is speaking out uncomfortable truths, taking a prophetic stance, as we must, if, as he says, we are to live within the meaning of a commitment to ministry. When we ask in 2015, what would Dr. King have done in 2015, I maintain that he would have been on a hunger strike with the prisoners of Guantanamo or Pelican Bay, that he would have joined Kathy Kelly or other prisoners of conscience who serve time, again and again, to say no to the continued depredations in our midst, when we continue to be beset, as Dr. King said more than 50 years ago, by the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism.
Of course, in addition to speaking about the violence of war, Dr. King is hitting hard on the topic of poverty and the abuse of the poor. He is speaking about the ghettoes… We have ghettoes in our midst, of immigrants and former convicts and abandoned women and their children and regular people of all races, creeds, cultures, colors and backgrounds, our sisters and brothers all, who cannot make ends meet, who are working, if they are working at all, for the corporate behemoths that plague our world. He would have been camped outside the Hayward City Council, speaking out against the recent spate of legislation criminalizing poverty and homelessness in our midst.
As for Jesus, the insurgent Jew that he was would have turned the tables and destroyed the furniture in the houses of worship that turn their faces from those who have no voice, would have cursed those who rule under the shadow of mammon and the chamber of commerce. He did not mince words either when speaking truth to power.
May we carry a prophetic vision forward, and work to rid ourselves of our greatest sin, which is a failure of love.
Seminarian Silvia Antonia Brandon Pérez