I am honored to have been asked to speak to you on this occasion. Given that we are here in celebration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is appropriate, I think, to begin by bringing him into the room. 38 years ago when our nation was involved in a war, destroying a small country that had done us no harm, Dr. King said his conscience left him no choice but to speak out. Tonight, changing only the name of the place, I believe it fitting to suggest that if he were here with us tonight he would be speaking out in the same way he did then:
"Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Iraq . I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Iraq . I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours."
Oh for a leader with the vision of a Martin Luther King today.
Tonight I want to offer some thoughts, some words of my own and those of others, in celebration of the vision of this nation and this people that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his life to make real.
His belief as a patriotic American was clearly articulated in a poem he quoted that night so long ago – the words of Langston Hughes, who he called “The Black Bard Of Harlem:”
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Let me begin this journey to make America what it should be with a note from a friend in prison. He was once on death row and was saved from the electric chair by a campaign of caring people. Though innocent he remains in prison despite our efforts to get him out because states refuse to admit their mistakes. It is easier for them to deny and hope we will not notice.
Joe G. ltr – 4/9/2001 – “Life comes at us the way it comes, and it cannot be otherwise. As I reflect I come to recognize that we human beings possess something which is at once more terrible and wonderful than all else: the ability to make ourselves and our world better or worse. I sense that humanity as a whole may not have progressed, nor will it meaningfully advance, if not for human beings who resolutely and passionately champion a cause they believe in. So many I've been fortunate enough to encounter during the course of my odyssey epitomize for me the fundamental fact that only by communicating one's realization with passion can the truth, one way or another, break through the fog of complacency that lays thick upon our consciousness as a species. I suppose that is one of our chief duties - to speak out to the best of our ability – maybe quietly and gently, maybe with angry wisdom, maybe with slow and careful analysis, maybe by unshakable public example; but speak out we must if humanity is to remain alive and awake. To abstain in stoical or ironical detachment or to stay dithered in the middle ground is to atrophy.”
The words of Joe Giarratano from Red Onion State Prison in Pound, VA.
Imagine you lived in a country that provided an example of human possibility for the rest of the world.
Imagine that the fundamental premises of this country praised the inherent beauty, value and dignity of every individual human being.
Imagine that the promise of this country inspired hope in the breasts of men and women everywhere to reach upward for something higher and better than anything they had ever known.
Imagine the future that an opportunity such as this land embodied could create in the hearts and minds of hopeful human beings.
Imagine what could be created out of such a land if nurtured and further inspired by courageous, intelligent, compassionate and hopeful leadership whose view was ever upward, ever outward.
Imagine then this shining star, this limitless opportunity, shunted onto a siding, power wasting, vision fogging, hope diminishing, dreams dying because of the rot of smugness, arrogance, greed, weakness, because of an absence of empowering spirit. Imagine the cancer of leaders without inspiration, of power-mad, self-satisfied, possibility denying rulers who, lost in the excrement of their own frustrations, lack the power of curiosity and the courage of love, choosing instead to bludgeon hope with the mace of fear.
Imagine then the sense of loss, the frustration, the enormous pit of despair that could encompass those who had once known possibility. Imagine the great tide of hopelessness and that would appear – the cynicism that would follow – and the negligence that would result.
I ask you to imagine this because it's worm's-eye view, held by some who don't enjoy the security in their lives that so many of us have come to count on. And it seems to me they represent the bottom line, where a principled life separates itself from a constipated, fear-driven world view; it's the line one steps across when choosing to expose the lie that suggests some human beings are immaterial, inconsequential, invisible.
There's a great truth told quite simply in a book I recently read. The primary character, a cop, says, “Everybody counts or nobody counts.”
A man named Baine Kerr made a very wise observation in another novel about the law entitled “Harmful Intent”:
“In cynical times right and wrong can be hard to sort out. Goodness and truth can seem beyond our reach. But we have the option, the obligation, to put cynicism aside and exercise the public virtues: to find truth, oppose wrong, protect innocence, promote good and do right.”
In support of that obligation, I hope you'll bear with me as I weave together strands from different places and times of my life to make a point.
Four black men in Illinois , the “ Ford Heights Four,” spent 18 years in prison for a rape and murder they did not commit. One testified in Washington , DC , about ways “to help restore justice to our criminal justice system.” He wondered what was at the root of systemic injustice, and observed, “I think it's fear. There's fear of crime, fear of different skin color, fear of admitting mistakes. You got people here in the government who're so scared, that they build more and more prisons while doing away with the safeguards that prevent them from being filled with innocent people. We can't go on being so scared of each other.”
He said, “I've been afraid, and I guess you could say I used to be a racist, too. But it was mostly white folks who stepped up to help us. So there's one thing I learned for sure in eighteen years: If we can conquer our fears, there's nothing we can't do.”
Those are the words of Dennis Williams - one of the Ford Heights Four – freed and fully exonerated eight years ago ('96) after 18 years on death row in Illinois only to drop dead of heart failure early last year while still in his 40's.
Now compare Dennis' thought, “...there's one thing I learned for sure in 18 years: If we can conquer our fears, there's nothing we can't do,” to this one -
“I have learned many things in prison, but the most important thing is that for a human being, there is no difficulty that cannot be overcome. You just have to rely on yourself and you can get through anything.” Those are the words of Wei Jingsheng, the Chinese Pro-Democracy dissident who was finally released after spending almost 18 years in a Chinese prison.
In spite of their bitter experience, these two men, from very different lives, came to the same conclusion: that by facing and conquering our fears and learning to rely on our strengths, we can do anything.
I was once at an event for a group of attorneys in Los Angeles who work in the inner city, representing people who live in deplorable conditions, helping them assert their rights against exploitive slumlords. A quote from one of the young children they had helped was on a banner in the room. “Mommy,” it said, “does this mean we don't have to live in the rat house any more?” That's a fairly simple, easily understandable message. No one - least of all a child - should have to live among rats. But I asked them to consider another child, as well. Not this one who tugs at our heartstrings, but a child from the same set of circumstances who feels the need for what he perceives as justice and says, instead, “Mommy, I'm going to find the people who made you live like this and make them sorry.”
What happens to that child? Maybe she leaves her rat-infested home and finds her way to a place of hope. Or maybe, if he's already in a place that promises hope but has been robbed of it, he steps across the line and becomes an outlaw, striking out at those in society who, in his mind, have done him – and his mother - harm.
I won't go through the litany; there is enough information around us today to clearly demonstrate that we are failing many of those in our society by deeming them invisible. We compound the failure by forcing them into a system – a school system, a legal system, a criminal justice system, a medical system, a welfare system, in which invisible people suffer invisibly and then, if they misbehave, we destroy them. Unless someone cares enough to pierce the shield of invisibility, the children from rat-infested places, the invisible people whose hearts yearn for justice, explode and do harm – or implode and do harm in another way. And when thoughtful, decent, principled people like Dr. King speak out against injustice and do their best to try to make our society what it should be, make the reality match the rhetoric, they are too often derided as bleeding hearts, or do-gooders and attacked as obstacles to progress rather than honored for the principles they demonstrate and the incredible courage they manifest. That's the history we know so well, the one in which Dr. King and so many other heroes and patriots who deserve to be honored are instead demeaned, derided, lampooned and ridiculed.
And why? Why does that sort of thing happen? Well, in order to zero in on a possible answer to that question, I want to take you rather far afield tonight. To understand our society and what's happening in it, it sometimes helps to look away and then back. Sometimes a new perspective helps us understand why it's important that the work of the compassionate, rather than threatening us, be embraced as a manifestation of our best selves. It can move us to think about the values one hears about less and less today, values like inclusiveness, mercy, justice and hope, and realize that they are not outmoded or inconvenient luxuries, but instead are urgent necessities for the successful growth of the society we claim to be building.
“We are all ‘Hibakusha'.” The word Hibakusha means “downwinders” and refers to those who were not caught in the initial atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki but, because of having been downwind, were nevertheless victims of the radioactive fallout. The phrase, “We are all Hibakusha,” opens the definition in a metaphysical way to include all of us. One way or another, through direct complicity, sympathetic understanding or as a function of an ineffable human interconnection, we are all at the effect of that horrific act - and of every horrific, anti-human act.
This idea that we are all Hibakusha seems peculiar to some, emblematic of the sad fact that we too often allow ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking that we are not connected - until an event or set of circumstances slaps us back to the awareness of the delicacy of our situation here, the impermanence, the mutability of life.
Clarence Darrow, a rebellious, path-breaking lawyer, once observed, “There is in every man that divine spark that makes him reach upward for something higher and better than anything he has ever known.” That is a potent description of the presence and irrepressibility of the human spirit - interesting from a self-professed atheist - one worth considering in difficult times.
I have done some work on behalf of refugees and in support of human rights in the world. Let me offer a couple of snapshots -
- El Salvador - (In Mariona Prison in 1983 I interviewed a man who took off his shirt to show the scars where acid had been poured on his chest in order to get him to name his co-conspirators. He had been taken off the street by heavily armed men in civilian clothes, tortured in a secret place and then brought to the prison where we met. His crime was that he was the head of the teacher's union in El Salvador , and the co-conspirators sought were his colleagues who believed in the value of education for their impoverished fellow citizens. If he survived, he celebrated the end of that slaughter with the UN-brokered peace that exposed the anti-human crimes of that U.S.-supported government.)
- Chile - (In 1986 I met in a darkened room in Santiago with a woman whose husband had been “disappeared” –[“disappeared” is a term of art in the world of terror, meaning those left behind never have even the minimal satisfaction of knowing that their lost loved one is living or dead]- her husband had been disappeared for writing words unacceptable to the Pinochet regime. Not knowing his fate, she displayed incredible courage by taking up the pen on his behalf and exhorting her countrymen and women to stand up for their beliefs. If she survived, the return of civilian government and a series of legal steps set in motion by the decision of Great Britain that General Pinochet could be detained and held liable under international law are monuments to her courage and integrity.)
- VA - (In the death house in Richmond in 1991 I sat with condemned inmate Joe Giarratano and his defense team at a table a few feet from the electric chair discussing our last-minute appeal to Gov. Wilder. As we ended the meeting one of the attorneys asked Joe to tell me about the table around which we had been sitting. “Oh, this,” Joe said. “This is the Cooling Table.” He explained that after he was electrocuted, his body would be too hot to touch, so two guards with asbestos gloves would quickly carry it out and lay it here until it could be safely disposed of. Gov. Wilder did intervene in that case, but because he didn't grant the new trial we believe necessary, Joe remains in maximum security today.)
- the Former Yugoslavia - (In a UNHCR transition center for refugees in Croatia in 1992 I met a Bosnian man - a doctor - who had been in one of the Serb concentration camps. He told us, among other horrors, of seeing a group of his fellow inmates forced to stand in a circle, tethered together by a wire passed through each of their tongues. While he was willing to tell us of horrors suffered by others, this doctor's advocacy for fellow prisoners had made him the object of treatment he could not bring himself to describe.)
What these people have in common, I believe, is a fundamental understanding of the value and dignity inherent in their existence, in the commonality of their simple humanity, in the beauty, energy and possibility that comes with life on this earth. And from that they derive a power that is indomitable, that allows them to stand in the face of overwhelming opposition. These individuals learned, through incredibly difficult personal experience, that by putting themselves out in the service of others they became more than they had once been. Their contribution to the Great Ledger, as John Steinbeck dubbed it, is their measure of themselves as humans. In “Sweet Thursday,” Steinbeck said the big question is, "What has my life meant so far and what can it mean in the time left to me?" "What have I contributed to the Great Ledger?”
To consider the debit side of that ledger, I was in Rwanda , in Central Africa , a short time after a genocidal war had been fought there in 1994. While the civilized world averted its eyes, people were killed by the thousands in a bloodletting the ferocity and scope of which are incomprehensible to most of us. 500,000 to 1,000,000 human beings, mostly of the minority Tutsi tribe, were killed in a period of three months. Mass slaughters took place all over the country in a carefully planned and well executed campaign to assert control over the majority Hutu population by entangling them in an horrific act of cruelty from which there could be no turning back.
70,000 women were raped during that terrible time. 350,000 children watched as family members were murdered.
An arena carefully chosen for the slaughters was the church. The chief means of mass communication in Rwanda is the radio and through a diabolically clever propaganda campaign, as the murderers were inspired to kill, the intended victims were deceived into gathering in the churches by the promise that they would there be granted asylum. Once gathered they were slaughtered by the thousands.
The new Rwandan Government, left with the job of cleaning up the awful mess in the countryside, left a couple of the churches as they were found so that those who came after could see for themselves what had happened. After visiting one, the Church at Ntarama, I sat in my room in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, and wrote the following:
Rwanda - The Church at Ntarama
Everything I believe was challenged by the infernal tableau displayed in this place. Though the three buildings and the yard between them were all so full of remains that one had to tread carefully, the chapel somehow presented the most soul-bruising image, probably because one clings to the hope that it does represent on some level the salvation, the deliverance from evil that these poor slaughtered wretches were seeking.
Piles of bones, the outline of the body they once supported still defined by the ragged remnants of their clothing, lay where they came to rest, tossed, strewn about by the force of the blast, the bullet, the thrust of the spear, blow of the club, swipe of the machete. Again and again and again the machete.
Books, canes, toys, purses, thermos bottles, shreds of the last things they held - those which their murderers left behind - punctuate the sentences of death written by these heaps of what were once vital beings.
The air, suffused with a thick, hideously sweet, cloying, web-like quality, is almost impossible to breathe. It is as if, having stepped into a charnel house, a human abattoir, I am caught between here and somewhere else, between this dimension and another, and to bring this horror into my nose, mouth, lungs, is to invite in corruption.
This holy place, and it clearly was that to those who sought refuge here, is now mute testimony to the unholy. What moves here, what this intruder can see and hear, are the roaches, lizards and others that find their sustenance in the leavings. But what exists here, what insists that it be heard, is the faint echo of the shrieks and moans of the dying as they compete with the grunts and exclamations of those who did this terrible work; the delicate puff of air from a hand reaching out, fingers curling in despair; the hiss of the blade on its downward path; the final sigh of release from those who expected more.
If there is in man that divine spark, it has here been crushed, spat upon, reviled, denied. Has it been extinguished? Can it be? Will we allow it to be?
As I'm sure you understand, it was awful. Not something anyone should have to see - or hear about - or certainly experience. But, like rat houses or death row, rape in prisons or torture by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, because it's there I believe we need to hear about it, to know about it. And, more important, we need to understand it if we can. You see, the perpetrators of the Rwanda massacres were in large part members of a youth organization called the “interahamwe.” Males and females ranging in age from 10 or 12 to their early 20s, without work and with little education, the interahamwe was the tool of an extremist faction of Hutus that controlled the government and offered a special education, an on-going campaign of virulent anti-Tutsi propaganda, for years.
Asked afterward how she could take part in the slaughter of innocents, people who had recently been her neighbors, one young woman answered, “I didn't really kill anybody. I just finished them off.” Another said, “I wasn't part of the killing. I just killed children.”
H.G. Welles once defined civilization as a race between education and catastrophe. Several decades ago, Mohandas K. Ghandi articulated what he called the seven social sins, one of which was “education without character.” Clearly, education is important and necessary, but as we learned from Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow American South, it can be used for many purposes. “Education without character,” the careful feeding in of selective information, can result in people being manipulated for purposes of evil, active or passive. There is a responsibility implicit in the exchange of information, the process of education, and the responsibility belongs to each of us who choose to be awake, alert, alive. We are all Hibakusha.
You see, unless we believe in something, be it Steinbeck's Great Ledger or something else, unless we have a fundament, a platform, a place upon which to stand, the purveyors of information, the controllers of the dialogue, can seem to be the embodiment of truth.
For us, the lesson that must be learned from Rwanda is not that Africans are primitive savages of some lower order capable of bestial behavior, but rather that human beings, with limited life experience and even more limited education, are capable of being directed by accepted authority into behaviors that, on reflection, are stunningly, shockingly inhumane.
If you remove the cultural trappings that describe the situation in Rwanda and replace them with more familiar ones you have a scenario where lynching a human being is cause for a celebration. Or in more modern times where a man or men believe that the detonation of a bomb at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City , creating the gut-wrenching carnage that shocked, enraged and confused America , is a necessary, appropriate, and in some twisted way productive, act.
Of course the horrifying events of Sept. 11 th testify that people can be victimized by purveyors of outrage from without as well as within -- as Iraqis and Afghans would unhappily agree today. But if we are to preserve our fundamental values we must not allow them to collapse because we're under attack – just as we mustn't forget them when we're not. The destruction of Twin Towers of concrete and steel cannot be allowed to obliterate twin towers of liberty and justice.
So, when we hear fear-inspired rhetoric in this country, denouncing and demonizing the target of the moment - yesterday a supposedly bloodthirsty killer who eats children for breakfast, today a ‘suspicious” someone who comes from a different culture, tomorrow a doctor whose understanding of her oath requires that she offer a service others deem unacceptable, or a Christian minister who is defrocked because of her sexuality - we have to remind ourselves that the purpose of demonization is to stop us from thinking; to manipulate us at the most base level. To make us followers. I listen to the lunacy of political demagogues intoxicated with their own power - people shouting “Go back where you came from!” – or those outside a prison in a drunken revelry screaming “Fry the Nigger!” - and wonder if we aren't witnessing the development of our own version of the interahamwe. The unthinking mob. Worse, the anti-thinking mob.
How does it happen? It happens when people, without a sense of themselves, without a belief in their own value, without a place to stand, are subject to the ravages of fear. The same fear Dennis Williams and Wei Jingsheng recognized, of which they were the victims.
Given the ethical collapse all around us today, who can blame people for being fearful? A culture that was raised on legends suffers from a collaboration of celebrity and media that creates heroes without substance: stick figure idols; smirking macho-men who mouth slogans rather than live principles. We watch professional athletes at the peak of their abilities, wealthy beyond their dreams, behave like unthinking brutes; enormously successful businesspeople – Enron, Halliburton or the latest offender from today's business page - trampling others in pursuit of more and more of the almighty dollar; policemen and women losing their way in a whirlpool of power, money, dope and corruption; religious leaders wallowing in self-righteous condemnation of others and political professionals with no goal in sight beyond self-promotion, and it's no wonder that people feel adrift and the young search in vain for models of appropriate behavior.
And as they search, add the stealthy phenomenon of media exploitation, not only of violence and all human frailty, but of the flag and the worst sort of jingoistic nonsense, just to win the race for ratings and you've built the perfect trap for those who want to believe that the information they're getting is right, good, important and appropriate.
The climate of fear that's created, and its cynical manipulation by pretenders to power, gives rise to monstrosities like “three-strikes-you're-out” - a death row populated with juveniles, minorities, the mentally retarded and brain-damaged, victims of abuse, the innocent and those who can't afford a defense - it gives us the horrors of Abu Ghraib, the politically charged lights of Homeland Security - a re-segregated society - inner city hopelessness - anger toward the homeless and impoverished - nativist and other anti-immigrant manifestations – homophobia – attempts to bully and stifle dissent – and all the many separatist, elitist policies that flourish today.
In such a time, when people are frightened and easily manipulated, confusion abounds. And in the midst of this confusion voices arise; voices in the media, in popular organizations, in some of our churches, in business and in positions of political power. These voices are often articulate, persuasive and highly seductive, and they are, in very clever ways, giving people permission to hate.
"We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate…” Dr. King reminded us. “The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.”
Yet the haters are here and you know them. They no longer burn crosses; they sit in the US Congress, on some of our courts and wear uniforms of authority; they blare their hatred on AM radio, beat their breasts on Fox News and sully the name of Jesus as they ignite the fires of bigotry. It is, though far more sophisticated, the same dynamic that taught those frightened, ignorant kids in the Interahamwe to kill their neighbors.
And because of these clever, manipulative power-seekers with honeyed voices, many people lose their balance and grasp at easy-appearing, quick-fix solutions. Torture and kill in Iraq . Vote for those who talk tough because you're afraid. Losing a sense of their own value, people forget the value of others and then they lose what I believe is the most important thing one can possess, the courage it takes to love. And without that they're on their way to becoming the Interahamwe.
So what, then, can caring people do? Well, we have a choice. Franz Kafka said: "You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have free permission to do so and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering that you could have avoided."
I say we must deal with it – by loving instead of fearing. With Dr. King I believe that “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” It is there inside us and we'll find it by looking inside and asking ourselves tough questions: Who am I? What am I? What is my purpose in this life and what am I doing about it? “The most urgent question,” Dr. King said, “is what have you done for others?” As John Steinbeck had it, ‘ What have I contributed to the Great Ledger?'
We must all answer those questions for yourselves, of course. For me, the answer is knowing that we are on a journey, you and I, a journey from the caves to the stars. There will always be those who live in fear, who preach fear, for whom fear is the motivating sacrament, and they will find every reason imaginable to go back to the caves and drag as many as they can with them. But the stars are where we belong and it only requires a willingness to reach for them, the courage to step toward them, even though we break new ground on a path not clearly visible, to move us ever onward, ever upward.
We have to be willing to stand up to their slander, to listen carefully and denounce the lies wherever and whenever they appear. We aren't alone – though it can sometimes feel that way. We can look for guidance to principles we know and trust and anchor ourselves in them: “find truth, oppose wrong, protect innocence, promote good and do right.”
We can stand for what is higher and better; we can know the answer isn't fear, but love, not ex clusivity, but in clusivity. And we can remember that we're all Hibakusha.
As Americans we must know that we are people of privilege and, as the Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue reminds us, “The duty of privilege is absolute integrity.”
So when cynics deride us, as they will, we can look to those who've gone before – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the forefront - and...
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, in his book, “Man's Search for Meaning,” says “ ...human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning.” In that damnable place he learned that "...love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. ...the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: the salvation of man is through love and in love."
Saint Augustine told us that the fundamental struggle in history is between “the love of power and the power of love.”
Susan Griffin, in “A Chorus of Stones,” writes of coming to grips with her own history of childhood abuse and the discoveries she has made along the way: “It is said that the close study of stone will reveal traces from fires suffered thousands of years ago... I am beginning to believe that we know everything, that all history, including the history of each family, is part of us, such that, when we hear any secret revealed, a secret about a grandfather, or an uncle, or a secret about the battle of Dresden in 1945, our lives are made suddenly clearer to us, as the unnatural heaviness of unspoken truth is dispersed. For perhaps we are like stones; our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung.”
We can speak the unspoken truth. We must sing the histories. And we must be participants in our nation and our world.
Justice Thurgood Marshall said, “We cannot play ostrich. Democracy cannot flourish among fear. Liberty cannot bloom among hate. Justice cannot take root amid rage. We must go against the prevailing wind. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy... We must dissent from a government that has left its young without jobs, education or hope. We must dissent from the poverty of vision and an absence of leadership. We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better. Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences that divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison. Reach out; freedom lies just on the other side.”
When Martin Luther King chose to speak out against the war in Vietnam , he said, “ Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”
We must. For America . For ourselves. And I thank you for this opportunity to do so tonight.