Sunday, August 28, 2011

Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech

Rather than delivering commentary, I thought I would be good to publish it in its entirety as it was delivered 48 years ago today.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Ron Paul conundrum

Last week in a presidential straw poll of Iowa Republicans, tea-party favorite Michele Bachmann, the congresswoman from Minnesota, came out as the winner.

But the most intriguing was who finished second: Rep. Ron Paul.

For the uninitiated, Paul, the 75-year-old former obstetrician and who grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Green Tree, has represented a district in Texas off-and-on since the 1980s from which he will retire after next year. A staunch libertarian and somewhat of a curmudgeon, he has long championed the dismantling of the Federal Reserve and, if my facts are correct, was the only Republican in Congress to oppose going into war in Iraq, in the process temporarily becoming a darling to anti-war activists.

But despite his showing in Iowa, don't expect Dr. Paul to become president or even to do much better in primaries and caucuses next year. Reason? He's not, and has never pretended to be, a politician. Isn't that the kind of person we need in office?

I would suggest not. While his support is deep, it's not wide.

We're long past the time where an office-holder or candidate can simply hold fast to certain positions and hope people will support them; in this way Dr. Paul represents a throwback to an earlier time but is out of touch with today's political reality. When you take such an uncompromising stand out of "principle," especially without communicating to people how it benefits them, you risk having them vote against you -- as the tea-party movement will find out next year. He's also somewhat of an isolationist, which won't fly today because of our relations with other nations; whether he likes it or not, politically and economically we're the most powerful nation in history.

Bottom line, the public, whether blue or red, simply doesn't agree with all or even most of Dr. Paul's views, and as such were he ever to ascend to the top spot he would never get a bill passed because Congress, bowing to the will of their constituents, would oppose just about anything he would do. (It's also the reason why the Libertarian Party, although the third-largest in the United States and under whose banner he's occasionally run, will never be a major player in American politics.)

But, from a Christian standpoint, I find something more troubling about Dr. Paul: I don't detect a sense of "justice" -- that is, what's ultimately right or wrong as opposed to what simply legal or illegal. He opposed the war in Iraq not because of what it might do to the country's finances or standing in the world but only because the Bush administration didn't take the proper steps to do so. It would be nice to hear Dr. Paul's moral vision, but to my knowledge he's never demonstrated one.

Yes, we live in a land governed, at least theoretically, by a Constitution; however, its meaning and ramifications have shifted over time because we don't live under the same conditions that existed in 1789. Besides, for us Christians, the U.S. Constitution isn't the highest authority; while I wouldn't advocate adjusting it to reflect Christian principles, still we have an obligation to state what we believe to be ultimately true. That's why it surprises me that Dr. Paul has such a following among Christians, many of who are still seeking a non-existent political messiah.

Especially one who can't win.

Monday, August 8, 2011

What we should have learned from Watergate -- but didn't

Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.
-- Psalm 146:3

Today marks the anniversary of the fulfillment of the first prophecy I ever made, in 1974.

That spring, as a seventh-grader at a Christian academy in suburban Pittsburgh, I was telling anyone who would listen that then-President Nixon "would be out of office in six months" -- and, like a lot of prophecy, no one took that seriously at the time. (I would soon leave the school and, with that, my "voice" was silenced.) However, I turned out to be right, as he did resign his office in disgrace after evidence surfaced as to his participation in the coverup of the Watergate scandal.

I wasn't simply a being a soothsayer, however. To get my drift, you have to understand that the families of almost all of my classmates were Nixon supporters, as I learned the previous academic year -- the teacher had polled us as to whom we favored in the presidential election then and I was the only one who definitively said, "McGovern." And while it was never stated openly, I did detect a sense that Nixon, who at the time had been friendly with Billy Graham and courted evangelicals, was somehow "God's candidate."

Having been burned, Mr. Graham subsequently, and permanently, removed himself from partisan politics. However, that episode with Nixon hasn't stopped some Christians from seeking yet another political Messiah, the next one being Ronald Reagan, whom Christians supported even more openly. Yet Reagan's actual record as president was at best spotty -- he raised taxes more often than he cut them, did little if anything to address social issues that evangelicals supported and presided over arguably the most corrupt presidential administration in my lifetime, with four members of his cabinet leaving under a cloud. Then you had George W. Bush as the next "anointed one" -- he even "spoke the language" -- but we as a nation are still paying through the nose for his mistakes. Right now some folks are calling Texas Gov. Rick Perry to get into the race, with perhaps more than a few convinced that he's destined to win.

That can go the other way as well. In the early 1990s, Operation Rescue head Randall Terry prayed for the death or Christian conversion of Supreme Court justices. Many conservative Christians willingly participated in the smear campaign against President Bill Clinton, and Philip Yancey, retelling the story in his book "What's So Amazing About Grace?", mentioned that he received a ton of hate mail in a response to an interview he had done with the president that placed what some would have considered positive spin and which was published in Christianity Today. And just before the end of the general election campaign of 2008, I received an emergency prayer request calling on God to defeat Barack Obama. (I called that prayer blasphemous.)

Bottom line, we Christians can't afford to be Manichean in our attitude toward political candidates, suggesting that "our guy is necessarily good and our opponents are hopelessly evil." Sin in the human heart is far more pervasive than we want to admit; occasionally we've even seen outspoken Christians who become powerful fall into temptation (e.g. Tom DeLay). Whomever we support is a matter of opinion and personal preference; let's never say, however, that having or removing (depending on our preference) so-and-so from office will by definition cause our nation to become more prosperous and moral. To do so is to put our ultimate trust in the political process -- and God will never allow that for very long.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Tea-party 'terrorists?'

Soon after the recent deal in Washington on the debt ceiling, my congressman, Mike Doyle, complained that, referring to the tea-party movement that challenged any proposal that raised taxes, "We negotiated with terrorists." Of course, those remarks, echoed with similar comments from Vice-President Joe Biden, received considerable play, especially criticism from the political right.

But before you consider their remarks an outright slur, let's consider a few things.

One, the tea-party movement has never, and I mean never, operated within the existing political structure. Considering our anti-establishment political culture, that sounds wonderful on the surface; however, it also comes from an utter ignorance about basic civics -- how bills are passed and just how people are elected in the first place. Tea-party members often complain that, rather than finding ways to stay in office, elected officials should be about "the people's business." Well, guess what, folks? If you ever spent any time with them, you know that they're doing just that. Tea-party adherents don't want to understand that we have not just one nation but also 435 distinct regions which represent different constituencies that are often at odds with each other, and our "bottom-up" way of doing things simply doesn't allow for the type of "top-down" representation that the movement feels would be more efficient to focus upon their narrow agenda. And that's why you have to have deal-making in Congress.

Two, the tea-party movement has always fancied itself as "grass-roots" when in practice it's now anything but. This recent imbroglio was sparked by longtime anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who will tell you that he's not a Washington "outsider" -- indeed, his "Leave Us Alone" coalition was instrumental in having Bill Clinton impeached in 1999 -- and who had numerous Republican lawmakers sign a pledge not to agree to any tax increases. Furthermore, much of the funding for the movement came from the now-notorious Koch brothers, the latest in the gaggle of super-rich libertarians/conservatives eager to keep their gravy train rolling and that has spent large sums of money over the past 40 years or so to skew the discourse.

In essence, we're talking about bullies who demand their way no matter what. They have no qualms about insulting, then punishing people who don't agree with them and will wreck the country in the process in their pursuit of power.

If Doyle and Biden were guilty of anything, it's hyperbole. But perhaps that was their point -- because when only your group alone decides what's "best" for everyone without any consultation from anyone else, be advised that it's acting just like a terrorist. However, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has said, "Terrorists [substitute 'bullies' if you prefer] always overplay their hand." And because it's making a ton of enemies as I write, the tea-party movement will be lucky to survive the 2012 election.