Dear America: A Letter to Our Nation
Well, we did it, didn’t we? We elected an African-American President! It’s amazing to think that in just a couple of days Barack Obama, the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, will be our President. There are some who said it couldn’t be done. At least not yet. Not in the first decade of the twenty-first century. We’re only a couple of generations away from Selma and Montgomery and Birmingham. From the police dogs and the fire hoses. From the lynchings and Jim Crow and whites-only lunch counters. From Brown vs. the Board of Education and Bloody Sunday and James Reeb. From that hotel balcony in Memphis where some say a dream died on April 4, 1968. As they used to say in those cigarette commercials, “You’ve come a long way, baby!” I’m so proud of you, America. I hope we can all bask in the glow of this moment on Tuesday, and that despite the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, maybe we can even let these feelings linger for a bit.
Martin would have been proud, too, wouldn’t he? This was his dream, right? We’ve judged Barack not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character. That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it Martin? What you fought for and died for? It’s so tempting to say that we’ve reached the land that Martin viewed from the mountain top, that Promised Land. I look at my children, at our children, at the children of this church and I see how color-blind they are, how accepting they are, how loving they are. How prepared and willing they are to sit together in brother- and sister-hood with those of any race or ethnicity. I watched last November as young people voted. Voted for the first time in their lives. And they voted with such faith, such optimism, such hope, for the man they thought could best lead you, America, without regard to his skin color or his lineage. And I say to myself: “Yes! We are living the dream. Today. Right now.”
And then an email comes across my desk about the murder of Oscar Grant. Oscar was pulled from a subway train in Oakland, California on New Year’s Eve by transit police who were investigating reports of a fight. Oscar, an African-American, was lying face down on the subway platform and showing no signs of resistance. Then a white transit cop walked up and shot him in the back of the head. All in front of a crowd of onlookers, some of whom videotaped the whole thing. It took almost two weeks for the county prosecutor to charge the officer and arrest him, as he lounged comfortably in his vacation home in Nevada. When was Rodney King brutally beaten by the LAPD? That was nearly 18 years ago. America, have we learned nothing in the intervening generation? Or do we just write this off as an isolated incident of police brutality that has nothing to do with race?
I’m afraid, America. I’m afraid we are placing too much stock in Obama’s election, pinning too many hopes to him. Yes, in two days a black man will become the so-called “leader of the free world," and that is a huge accomplishment. President Obama has erased color as a barrier to the highest office in the land, and in so doing he has opened up a world of possibility to all Americans of color. But his election does not signal the end of the struggle, nor does it not relieve us, America, of our ongoing responsibility to pursue the dream. And while we want to believe in a dream that is as simple and pure as a vision of children of former slave owners sitting down in fellowship with the children of former slaves, the dream is so much more complex than the realization of one man’s—albeit a black man’s—dream to become President. And it runs deeper than Martin’s vision, offered up in front of the Lincoln Memorial, for his children and how they might someday be judged.
America, land where our fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, what will it take for you—for us—to make Martin’s dream a reality? To build the Beloved Community of which he spoke? Do we even know what that is? What it looks like? Beloved Community is so much more than mere desegregation of the races and dismantling of the institutions that separate us. For Martin, it was heaven incarnate, the kingdom of God on earth. Donald Chinula, professor of religion and philosophy at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama has said that Martin’s beloved community “was a society that had achieved ‘optimal integration,’ not just desegregation.” He tells us that Martin’s beloved community “has achieved a sense of human togetherness and solidarity and is vigilantly intentional about promoting human togetherness… The beloved community is a transformed society committed to justice, peace, and love.”
This optimal integration, America, this transformed society, is not just about the relationship between the races. It is a new way of being for all the races, for all humankind. Let us not forget that, by the time of his death, Martin had expanded his calling from working to achieve equal rights for African Americans to the task of peacemaking, bringing an end to systemic poverty, and seeking economic justice for all. He vehemently opposed our involvement, America, in the Vietnam War and on the day he died he was in Memphis to support the striking sanitation workers of that city. Martin’s beloved community is, as Professor Chinula tells us, “a society at peace with itself and the world, one that is devoid of obscene pockets of poverty; a society that loves justice and righteousness.”
And so, my country, there are outward and visible signs that will tell us whether we have achieved this state of beloved community and, I’m sorry to report, that we are far from it. All it takes is one look at our inner cities, where these obscene pockets of poverty persist. Where unemployment exists at two and sometimes three times the national rate. Where the dropout rate at urban high schools exceeds seventy and sometimes eighty percent. Where the life expectancy of our urban poor is years less than our suburban and rural brothers and sisters. Where people die because they cannot afford to replace the battery in their smoke detectors, or their space heaters catch fire after their gas has been shut off.
I’m afraid that these statistics are but visible symptoms of a persistent, insidious disease. It is a disease that plagues us all, and it’s as old as your very founding, America. The truth is that we are not ready to build the beloved community, you and I, America. We are not committed to it, as a nation or as a people. Because, you see, we are not a “we,” but merely groupings of “I’s,” individuals seeking what is best for ourselves. We have not outgrown the rugged individualism that you, America, promoted through your founding and your infancy. Our capitalist systems promote a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” mentality when it comes to financial security and success, attitudes that we have seen come home to roost in the recent collapse of the housing and investment markets. America, it may be a hard truth to hear, but the truth is that you value more highly the principle of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps than you do the commitment to put boots on the feet of the men and women and children who are bootless. Beloved community escapes you, it escapes us, because we are not, at heart, communitarians, people who value those around us as highly as we value ourselves.
Listen to the words that Martin wrote from his jail cell in Birmingham in 1963, and tell me, America, that these are the values you treasure above all others, the beliefs you hold dear: “Injustice anywhere,” Martin wrote, “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.” Another man arrested and killed for his beliefs nearly 2,000 years ago said it a little differently, but he meant the same thing: “What you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do unto me.” Like Jesus before him, Martin saw the reality of our relatedness which lies behind the illusion of our individuality.
America, your commitment to the individual pursuit of perfection and pleasure is no longer sustainable. The bubble has burst and we can, if we but open our eyes, see that this particular emperor has no clothes. The “grab all you can get for yourselves” economy has failed you, America, just as it has failed the least of your brothers and sisters since your Founding Fathers guaranteed your privileged, educated and able-bodied citizens life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness some 230 years ago. Have you noticed that the purveyors of the Prosperity Gospel have fallen strangely silent over the past few months? Parker Palmer takes aim at the so-called mainstream churches of our nation and their failure to advocate for the establishment of beloved community in our land when he writes that “the religion of the American middle class…aims at enhancing the self-esteem of persons who have material comfort while ignoring conditions of poverty and pestilence which deprive a whole class of people of life itself, let alone feelings of self-worth.” :
I am sorry to say that even we liberals, members of liberal churches who proclaim a gospel of justice, equity and compassion, have been caught up in this misperception of essential reality. Theologian Paul Rasor points out the errancy of our liberal churches, saying that they tend “to protect the individual from the community, from true engagement with the other.” He goes on to say that “this kind of negative freedom tends to produce a constricted sense of self. But a love-based understanding of community would extend the individual and expand the self outward toward the other.” The fallout from this persistent perspective of a constricted self, even of those claiming to be liberal, is that we are inhibited from engaging in vigorous social action to eradicate systemic discriminations like racism and classism. “Overturning the existing system,” Professor Rasor tells us, “would be contrary to our own interests.” And so we dabble in causes that make us feel better about ourselves, never really investing our souls or our skin in effecting meaningful change.
America, I confess that I am as much to blame as anyone. I am a creature of my environment, conditioned by the media and the messages that have bombarded me since birth. I was raised with the expectation, even perhaps a sense of entitlement, that each generation’s standard of living would exceed that of the previous. I want what I want, when I want it. Forgive me, America, for buying into your dream. But you did a heck of a sales job.
There are times, though, America, moments in history that define us, and that can define generations to come. December 7, 1941, was one, and September 11, 2001, another. But defining moments don’t come only with violence and loss and tragedy. They come at times when there is an historic convergence of events. Like the inauguration of our first black President on the day after Martin Luther King Day, at a time when our economy is in crisis and our standing in the world at an all-time low. These are the times that call for bold answers to persistent, vexing questions. Like how to put all our people to work. How to provide quality education to all our children, and affordable, comprehensive health care to all our citizens. How to reverse generations of environmental degradation and literally save our planet. How to eliminate the threat of nuclear annihilation.
At times like these, America, we have the opportunity to shift our paradigms. To break with old habits and outdated ways of being. To choose a new path and to pursue new horizons. We cannot, we must not, squander this opportunity. We must not shrink back from these challenges for fear of failure, or resort to former strategies that we know to be deficient. America, I call on you to become your best self, the self that, as Martin said, cannot be itself without other selves. The “I” that does not exist except in relation to the “Thou.” The transformed society of equity, compassion, and love. The Beloved Community of Martin’s dream, where justice rolls down like water, and peace like an ever-flowing stream.
America, I wish you love and hope and that abiding peace that passeth all understanding.
- Donald Chinula, Building King’s Beloved Community, 60.
- Chinula, 62.
- Quoted by Paul Rasor in Soul Work, 107.
- Paul Rasor, from “Liberal Theology and the Challenge of Racism” in Soul Work, 109-110.