In January of 2008 Barack Obama gave a powerful speech (sermon) on the meaning of Martin Luther King Jr. for America today. This was at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King was raised and his father was the pastor.
Obama directly confronts fundamental moral problems rampant in American society and politics. (I’ve added some emphases to the print version.)
I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy deficit. I’m taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper;
And he brings the issue home to each of us.
So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with us the task of changing our hearts and minds. The division, the stereotypes, the scape-goating, the ease with which we blame our plight on others – all of this distracts us from the common challenges we face – war and poverty; injustice and inequality.
That reminds me of Jesus warning us to not be preoccupied with the speck in someone else’s eye when we have a log in our own. First things first. Or as Gandhi said, “We must become the change we want to see.”
We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late.
That reminds me of the way Obama is actually operating. It seems he really is NOT into the politics of vilification and hate. That’s a little strange to get used to – we have been trained in that poisonous kind of politics. But I thank God it looks like we’ll have the opportunity to get used to a different way.
That is not to say, of course, that he is going to sit idly by and let destroyers continue to destroy. There’s a great difference between responsible, intelligent action on the one hand, and poisonous hateful fear-mongering politics on the other.
Because if Dr. King could love his jailor; if he could call on the faithful who once sat where you do to forgive those who set dogs and fire hoses upon them, then surely we can look past what divides us in our time, and bind up our wounds, and erase the empathy deficit that exists in our hearts.
King of course is not the only example of that. There are multitudes. But Obama’s point is that we also must become examples of that.