Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Dr. King, Pesach and the Urgency of Now

Nachman of Bratzlav stated about the Exodus:

"One needs to leave Mitzrayim (Egypt) with great haste. This is the essence of the quote from Torah, "For they left Mitzrayim and couldn't tarry, and also they didn't make provisions [for the journey]." (Exodus 12:39) This truth is recapitulated in each person and in each era. In each person and in each time, there can be found a residue [of Mitzrayim], the cravings and woes of this world, and this is the essence of the exile in Mitzrayim. This is the essence of Pesach. At the moment of the Exodus from Mitzrayim, a great light from on high was revealed, as is known; and at that time, promptly, Israel went out in great haste and they couldn't tarry. For even if they had remained there even one more instant, they would have remained a remnant there, as is known."

We are also coming up on some important anniversaries in our country. Wednesday, April 4, will mark 50 years since the slaying of Dr Martin Luther King. Exactly one year before he was killed, on April 4, 1967, he gave a very important speech at Riverside Church in NY, for the first time speaking out forcefully against the Vietnam War. What he said that night reminds me somewhat of what we are hearing from those teens in Parkland who have decided to move from their tragedy in a new way, bypassing the "thoughts and prayers" and all the evasion that has followed most mass shootings, and breaking the silence.

On April 4, when King spoke about Vietnam, he was going against the advice of many of his friends, who said to him:

"Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?" "Peace and civil rights don't mix," they say. "Aren't you hurting the cause of your people?" they ask. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live."

King added:

"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. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation's history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement, and pray that our inner being may be sensitive to its guidance. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us."

I've been watching the Ken Burns series on Vietnam that was broadcast last fall by PBS. It's taking me a while, so I just got up to the episode that mentions this speech by Dr. King. It resonated so much with me.

Last week, I was talking about the March for Our Lives with a veteran of the '60s Vietnam protests, who shared the observation that when she was in college and she and her classmates marched against the war, it saddened her that no adults marched with them. Given what we now know about how successive administrations systematically lied to the American people about Vietnam over the course of decades, leading to the senseless deaths of over 50,000 American soldiers and many more innocent civilians, one wonders if things would have turned out differently if more adults had recognized the urgency of that moment and turned against the war sooner, rather than just shrugging and saying, "Kids these days..."

Given the terror that students of all ages now live with every day - not that different from that fear felt by students of draft age in the '60s - it is important that they not march alone this time. As Martin Luther King said, "A time comes when silence is betrayal, and that time is now."

Back on April 4, 1967, Dr. King concluded:

"We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood-it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, "Too late."

Every 18 months, more Americans die by gunfire than died in the entire Vietnam War, which is why I understood last week's march to be another reminder of the urgency of now.

Here's how King concluded this speech at Riverside Church, quoting the poet, James Russell Lowell:

Once to every man and nation comes a moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever 'twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet 'tis truth alone is strong
Though her portions be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.

"And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

There comes a moment when each of us must decide, whether to act or sit tight. For some, that moment came when the last plague struck. For others, it came on April 4, 1967 - or on the very same day the following year.

For all of us, on some level, as we sit around our tables this week, that moment is now.

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