Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Embracing the Dream: A Pastoral Reflection on the Anniversary of the I Have a Dream Speech[1]

As this nation observes the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and its centerpiece event, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s I Have a Dream speech, it is worth asking:  what would Dr. King think of contemporary life in the United States of America 50 years after his soaring, prophetic words confronted and challenged the nation?

No doubt, Dr. King would recognize that tremendous progress has been made on issues of race and racial reconciliation in America.  A majority of Americans voted for a person of color, Barak Obama, to be President of the United States, not once, but twice, even amidst the strains of an unstable struggling economy.  Many Americans live in integrated communities and have deep relationships with others that cross racial boundaries. In many workplaces people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds happily work together, and although the top positions in corporate America are still predominately held by white males, some inroads are being made.  In lots of schools, playgrounds and on playing fields, white children hold hands with black children fulfilling an explicit hope of Dr. King’s dream.  Television shows, commercials and print ads feature an increasingly wide variety of persons pitching products to diverse audiences.  Houses of worship are somewhat less segregated at worship time on Sunday morning.  None of this was the case when Martin Luther King spoke in Washington D.C. fifty years ago.

Still, significant problems continue to confront us as a nation.  The angry divide over what many feel certain was an unjust verdict in the Trayvon Martin slaying reveals the on-going chasm of mistrust along racial lines.  Purposeful dialogue, sharing of stories and experiences, and intentional relationship building between people of different races and ethnic backgrounds continues to be sorely needed in the United States today.    

If he were alive, I’m certain Dr. King would set his sights on the persistent achievement gap in education.    African-Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics continue to lag behind Whites and Asians in educational achievement in this country.    There has been marked improvement in the decades since Dr. King’s assassination, but he would, I am sure, urge us on as the value of an education is still the best ticket to social and economic parity in this country.  Nonetheless, schools in poor communities are badly under-resourced and whites have greater access both to private schools and to high-achieving public schools.  There is still tremendous work to be done on this front.

If Dr. King were alive today, he would unquestionably recognize our nation’s criminal justice and prison system as a focal point of mean inequity and injustice.  The United States is second only to Russia in having the highest incarceration rate in the world.  Approximately 740 persons per 100,000 are in prison in this country compared to 120 per 100,000 in China.   In the United States, a shamefully disproportionate number of the prison population is made up of young black and Hispanic men.

In the United States, Prisons have become a “growth industry” as we have become increasingly dependent upon a privatized prison system.  This creates a profit incentive to increase the number of incarcerated persons.  The immorality of this should challenge us all, as it did many students and faculty of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.  This past year, they rose up in protest when GEO, a giant, international, corporation, which bills itself “the world's leading provider of correctional, detention, and community reentry services,” attempted to purchase the naming rights of the FAU football stadium for a $6 million donation.  F.A.U. faculty and students were successful in preventing this renaming (playing upon the school’s mascot, one clever person dubbed the stadium “Owlcatraz!”).  In the wake of this debacle and other missteps, the F.A.U. President was forced to resign. 

Incarcerating persons should not be the happy enterprise of entrepreneurs in a laissez faire corporate climate loosed from moral accountability and responsibility.  Incarcerating persons should be the reluctant chore of the state, heavily regulated, with very close oversight and accountability to the general public rather than a body of shareholders.  No one should profit from its misery.

Moreover, incarceration often demands forced labor, “chain gangs.” Our nation has legitimized a contemporary form of slavery and made it socially acceptable.  Yes, prisoners receive nominal pay, but the system charges them back room, board, restitution and other expenses, often more than their income provides.  And what is the driving force for the massive number of incarcerations in this country that catches a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic men in its dragnet?  A failed war on drugs, and a system which punishes and recidivates rather than rehabilitates and heals!  If he were alive today, no doubt, Dr. King’s prophet’s sword of a tongue would decry our nation’s criminal justice and prison system as a primary perpetuator of institutional and systemic racism. 

Above all, I am convinced that if Dr. King were alive today, had his life not been cut short by an assassin’s bullet from a high powered rifle, he would decry this nation’s obsession with guns and our complacency about gun violence.  I am confident Dr. King would have been anguished, with the rest of us, at the killing of 26 innocent children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14 of last year.  He would have been horrified, as we all should be, that the American reaction to the deaths of those innocent children and adults was to buy more guns, so that additional violence will inevitably be inflicted upon our nation.   Our nation’s obsession and worship of guns has become in many instances a clear form of idolatry – “gunolatry.” 

I believe Dr. King would have wondered, and would have provoked our nation’s conscience, by asking us why the sadness, grief and outrage, which understandably and appropriately surged after Sandy Hook, which understandably and appropriately surged after Columbine and Aurora and Virginia Tech and the other 30 or so mass shootings which have occurred in the last decade,  have not been equally pronounced or deep for the exceptionally high number of black victims, especially young black males and young black children who die from gun violence each year across our nation.

In the City of Trenton where I now live, there have been 31 homicides since January 1.  This ties the record in Trenton for the most homicides in a year.  The previous record was set in 2005.  No doubt that record will be surpassed in the four months remaining in 2013.   Of the 31 homicide victims in Trenton, almost all were young black men, a few were Hispanic and one was a 42 year old black woman.  The most recent victim, Jafar Lewis, was a 26 year-old city resident who was shot dead this past Friday night.  Two police officers were also shot in recent days, one is still in the hospital as a result of his wounds.

According to the FBI, in 2008, the most recent year for which I could find statistics, there were 6,841 black homicide victims in the United States.  Black males between 17 and 29 make up almost half of all gun homicides in this country.  As one reliable source notes, black American are six times more likely than white Americans to be victims of gun violence, and seven times more likely to commit homicide with a gun.   Guns and gun violence are an epidemic problem in this nation and visit death inequitably within the black community.

Some shrug this off, declaring that these kinds of deaths are mostly “about young black men from the poor part of town killing other young black men from the poor part of town” as though that were a negligible thing.   “It's mostly a matter of thugs killing thugs," Rod Dreher declared last year in a blog entry on January 14, 2013 which focused on gun violence in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.[2]  

In a thoughtful response to Dreher, David Frum, a contributing writer at CNN, editor of Newsweek, and former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush wrote, “many of those seeming thugs are carrying guns for the same reason that people who consider themselves respectable carry them: in a futile quest to protect themselves with greater firepower.”[3]  Frum observes, “One person can find safety that way.  But if two people carry firearms, a confrontation that might otherwise have ended in words or blows ends instead with one man dead, and the other man on his way to prison for life.” Frum continues, “Widespread gun ownership means not only more gun killings, but also more gun maimings and cripplings…. Those young men in Baton Rouge [and Trenton, Camden and other cities large and small!], who are killing each other in such horrific numbers do not manufacture their own guns. They did not organize the gun trade that brings the guns to their town. They did not write the laws that prevent their town government from acting against guns. They carry guns -- and misuse guns -- thanks to a national system of gun regulation that makes guns easily accessible to those least likely to use guns responsibly.  The gun laws intended to put guns into the hands of ‘good guys’ are the laws that also multiply guns in the hands of ‘bad guys’ -- bad guys who might not have become such bad guys if the guns had not been available to their hands.”  

Frum’s conclusion?  “The price of redefining gun violence as an issue pertaining only to ‘those people’ -- of casting and recasting the gun statistics to make them less grisly if only ‘those people’ are toted under some different heading in some different ledger -- the price of that redefinition is to lose our ability to think about the problem at all.”[4]

There are those who argue, “Guns aren’t the problem, people are.”  Sadly, this thinking is wrong.  Guns are the problem…. Access to guns is the problem, easy access, especially to handguns and military-style assault weapons with high-capacity magazines.  Our nation has, by far, the highest rate of gun deaths in the industrialized world.  Nearly 30,000 people per year in this country die from gun violence.  No other so-called developed country is even close.  The numbers are inarguable.  The conclusion is irrefutable: where there are more guns there are not only more gun deaths, there are more violent deaths overall, a lot more!  I believe it is well past time for people of faith to name the evil of gun violence without equivocation and to stand our ground in calling for significant and meaningful Gun Reform.  It is time for us to reject “Gunolatry” and all of its attendant ills and evils.   
There are estimated to be more than 228 million Christians in this country.  Surely, enough of us accept the gospel of peace preached by Jesus Christ to stand up to the gospel of violence preached by gun lobbyists and gun manufacturers.  On this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I am confident that this is the work Dr. King’s legacy calls us to.  I am confident this is what Jesus would have us do.   It is time to reject the nightmare and embrace the dream:  Dr. King’s dream which is actually the dream of the kingdom of God. 

[1] I first developed the thoughts in this reflection in a sermon I preached on the occasion of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Observance held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Delray Beach, Florida on January 20, 2013.
[2] Dreher, Rod Janaury 14, 2013 “Who kills, who dies, in Baton Rouge” The American Conservative -
[3] See Frum, David, “America’s Gun Problem is Not a Race Problem” CNN website, January 16, 2013 at 
[4] Frum


Mary Lou Steed said...

I'm sure you are aware of the movement in Europe of crowds of people having sit-ins in front of the offices of multi-national corporations, protesting the economic inequity they represent. To me, this is one of the critical elements in bringing Dr. King's Dream further.

As for hope: at the time of Dr. King's assassination, the head of the KKK went to his local hang-out and celebrated with his friends. Later (for what reason I do not know) he read some of Dr. King's writings and realized that Dr. King was fighting for him, a poor country boy, as much as for anyone.

GJ said...

From the documentaries I watched along with Joan Baez... Let's gather ALL the musicians and go play music and see what would happen to where they are hurling chemical weapons... Since music speaks to the hearts, unties, then lets put on the full armor with feet shod with peace so that we what.... STAND... and play instruments instead of guns, and sing out with our voices... In part Lord God told Jonah to go tell the people to repent... what if we also did it with voice and instrument... How Wondrous... Mercy Be, Healing Balm for the nations... and very cost effective, good for the environment. -GJ, CHS