January 19, 2009

On the Audacity of a Dream

Those of my readers who aren't from the United States (and some of those who are) have probably already heard more than they will ever be able to take in about the historic events surrounding tomorrow's inauguration of the 44th president of the country I call home.

Generally I avoid discussing anything remotely resembling politics in my religious blog.
I do this for several reasons, most notable of which is that in the United States of America there is a legal precedent for religious and governmental institutions to maintain a strict division, referred to in our Constitution as a "separation of church and state." I also have a more pragmatic reason, which is that our church currently is registered as a tax-exempt religious organization and that such registration can be lost if the organization can be shown to be violating that legal separation of religion and politics, and I believe the distinction is a just one that should be respected and I intend to do so wherever possible.

But enough of an aside. What I meant to rant about discuss in today's entry, which is of importance to all thinking people regardless of their religious or political persuasions, was the unfortunate characterization of the election of Barack Obama, our nation's first mixed-race President, as, and I'm going to quote CBS News here, "fulfilling Dr. Martin Luther King's dream."

A suggestion that Barack Obama is somehow the final culmination to Dr. King's contributions to the civil rights movement has been growing in volume and reached its crescendo today, the day we celebrate Dr. King's birthday as a national holiday. It seems to have been added to an already unhealthy attempt to portray the President-Elect as some sort of superhero or messiah figure to a degree that not even Dr. King was ever subjected.

Barack Obama is a pretty amazing man; don't get me wrong. I, too, did my time in the community organizing trenches of Chicago after I moved here in 1987, helping with the electoral process at my alma mater, Mundelein College Chicago, and subsequently working on the campaign of a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in the early 1990s. I heard about him and about the work he was doing on the South Side (I was located on the North Side, so we did not work together). I heard good things.

President-elect Obama was very active in the University of Chicago community during the time I was working on my master's degree there, where he also left me with a fair amount of positive things to say about him. He is a thoughtful, capable individual and perhaps precisely the person we need to represent our nation to the world in this most challenging time for us.

He also represents the face of our nation's future: a little younger, a little less privileged, a little less white. In the Native American community I am part of as an Onondaga, I know that we are excited to have a man about to become president who finally seems to acknowledge that this is not a country belonging only to one race or one tax bracket, and I expect that the same things are being said and believed in other minority communities and cultures across this country tonight.

However, President Obama, as he will be before the next sun sets, is not the fulfillment of the civil rights movement, in the United States or elsewhere.

He represents a significant figure to be certain. On some levels, he is the first and best of those working toward the changes that need to happen before any of Dr. King's dreams become realities across our nation and our world. He is a trailblazer and a representation of a good new beginning, but not the culmination. We're not over the mountain yet, folks, even if Dr. King got there before us and Obama's height has put him in a position that he can see where we can head if we only have the courage to walk along.

Dr. King's dreams will never be fulfilled as long as anyone loses a job or can't get a loan or isn't welcome in a neighborhood because of the color of their skin, the name of their God, the land of their origin or the gender of their spouse. Dr. King's belief in a fair and open world as a possibility will remain a dream as long as individuals choose reaching for themselves over reaching out. Civil rights can never, and will never, occur unless we are willing to act in the civil ways those rights demand. As long as civil rights in the United States of America remain civil possibilities, or civil privileges, or (as they often are) civil impossibilities -- the dreams will only be dreams and continue to elude our grasp.

Obama may very well help us to reach for those dreams in ways we have never before considered, and encourage us to remember what it is to be good citizens and neighbors of our nation and our world -- but he cannot be expected to do this alone or embody it alone. We cannot put all our dreams on this man who is climbing the ladder ahead of us; we will only weigh him down with their expectations and slow his rise. What we must do, is start climbing up behind him, and reach back with the other hand to help the one behind us to reach up and climb too.

I will be praying for Barack Obama tonight, alongside the prayers I usually say for Dr. King's ka on this day. I'd like to think Dr. King is sitting on the other side of that mountain watching what we're doing and being very happy for us, but he's probably praying for Obama as well. I'd like to offer some of Dr. King's thoughts for each of us to contemplate, taken from his acceptance speech for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize:

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. "And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid." I still believe that we shall overcome!

This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.
- read the rest of Dr. King's speech by clicking here -

For my part, I can speak no better words than these, made just over 45 years ago. I can only echo them and honor their speaker by pointing out something important in the face of those who would suggest all the hard work is over just because there is "a brown man in the White House" as of tomorrow afternoon.

I refuse to accept that Barack Obama alone will be responsible for culminating the dreams of a better world, or that they are somehow fulfilled simply by the fact that he managed to win an election.

There is much, much more work to do, every day, to make the world a better place in Ma'at. Each one of us has a place in this plan, no matter what nationality or religion we embrace. The dreams of Dr. King should not require audacity -- they should be the united aims of compassionate and rational people everywhere -- but until we have achieved that reality, it's time for more of us to be a little audacious. Who's with me?


  1. It has been a long journey for improvements on civil rights and equality, and with Obama being sworn in, the civil rights movement have come full circle since the "I have a dream speech". I hope Obama can concentrate on increasing jobs, advancing education, and the decreasing of our dependence on fossil fuels.

  2. And may we not forget this in the coming days, either.


  3. Thank you for saying this. I've been thinking similar thoughts for a while, but couldn't put them into words.