When I was studying ancient Greek history many (many) years ago, it dawned on me that a nation rises and falls on the way that it treats its outstanding people, who are often its most important critics. By this standard, and by many others, the vital signs of America are not encouraging. According to an extensive, and shocking study by a panel of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, men under fifty in this richest country of the world have the lowest life expectancy by a wide margin of any comparable society. Leaving aside the epidemic of gun violence, they lose more years of life to alcohol and drug abuse than people in any of the other countries compared.
I put this decline alongside, on the one hand, the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and MLK, whose day we celebrate today – and the dark rumors surrounding the guilt for those heinous crimes – and with the response of many of my fellow citizens to the latest and most shocking gun massacre: to buy more guns. In California alone, 4.6 million guns were bought in the last decade, with a sharp spike after every mass murder; which is to say, as every demonstration that guns cause horrendous damage to life and the living.
As Dr. Steven Woolf, chairman of the Department of Family Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University and head of the panel issuing the report just mentioned, was forced to conclude, “Something fundamental is going wrong.” He is right. There is a single cause, one image, that can explain these symptoms of dysfunction and it is that we are going through a period of acute demoralization. And the reason for this, I propose, is that we are so tightly held in the grip of violence that we are taking ourselves and the world (to the extent we still influence the world) in exactly the wrong direction. We are choosing death when all human yearning, individual and collective, is for higher life.
That is why the assassination of Dr. King, coming so early in his prophetic career, must rank as one of the most severe blows to the well-being of this country that we have experienced. There was a revolutionary, redemptive potential in his vision that is sometimes lost sight of simply because it is so revolutionary. Take this example:
I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be; and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.
This one statement sweeps away the competitive, separate vision of who we are that is the foundation, when you think about it, of all violence.
We have a saying (it’s engraved on the King memorial in Atlanta): “You can kill the dreamer, but you can’t kill the dream.” But maybe we can even take it a step further. Some years ago when I was concluding the study of the Civil Rights movement with my nonviolence class at Berkeley an older student took me aside after class and told me a story (which I was subsequently able to confirm). His wife had been working closely with Coretta King, and on that fateful day in April,1968 they happened to be on a plane heading to San Francisco. Suddenly the atmosphere in the plane changed; she felt weird, and couldn’t understand why no one else seemed to notice that anything was wrong. Then she heard a voice: “Tell them that I’m all right.” She was extremely puzzled, having never experienced anything like it before or since. When they reached SFO and disembarked they got the news that Martin had been killed.
You can kill the dreamer’s body, it would seem, but you can’t kill the force that impelled him or her to become an instrument of that dream. King, like Gandhi, was – and is – a towering example of a capacity that lies to some degree or other in every one of us. If we want to honor his memory, the best – rather, the only way to do that, today or any day, is to carry on the work that he began, which was not only to secure justice for an oppressed race, where he and many brave souls who shared his inspiration made substantial headway, but to dispel from our hearts and minds the miasma of violence that underlay that oppression. Learning more about his inspiring life is a good start, resisting wherever possible the drab, trivialized image of humanity we’re fed by the media: then getting engaged wherever we can be most effective in reducing violence. We will not be alone if we take up, as we must, this tremendous challenge.
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