Way back in January 2008, a certain presidential candidate gave a speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the congregation once served by Martin Luther King Jr. . . .
. . . “Unity is the great need of the hour.” That’s what Dr. King said. It is the great need of this hour as well, not because it sounds pleasant, not because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exits in this country.
I’m not talking about the budget deficit. I’m not talking about the trade deficit. Talking about the moral deficit in this country. I’m talking about an empathy deficit, the inability to recognize ourselves in one another, to understand that we are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper, that in the words of Dr. King, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”
Pause for a minute and let that sink in: “the empathy deficit is the essential deficit that exists in this country.”
We have an empathy deficit when we’re still sending our children down corridors of shame, schools in the forgotten corners of America where the color of your skin still affects the content of your education. We have a deficit when CEOs are making more in ten minutes than ordinary workers are making in an entire year, when families lose their homes so unscrupulous lenders can make a profit, when mothers can’t afford a doctor when their children are stricken with illness. We have a deficit in this country when we have Scooter Libby justice for some and Jena justice for others, when our children see hanging nooses from a school yard tree today, in the present, in the 21st century. We have a deficit when homeless veterans sleep on the streets of our cities, when innocents are slaughtered in the deserts of Darfur, when young Americans serve tour after tour after tour after tour of duty in a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged. We have an empathy deficit in this country that has to be closed. We have a deficit when it takes a breach in the levees to reveal the breach in our compassion, when it takes a terrible storm to reveal the hungry that God calls on us to feed, the sick that He calls on us to care for, the least of these that He commands that we treat as our own. So, we have a deficit to close. We have walls, barriers to justice and equality that must come down, and to do this, we know that “unity is the great need of the hour.”
These words were spoken in 2008, but they seem even more appropriate today. Those schools that were in trouble three years ago are in worse shape now, as every state in the country has been cutting back on funding, leaving every district to axe teachers and staff, raise class sizes, and defer maintenance. That “tour after tour after tour after tour of duty” has had at least one more “after tour” added onto it, and atrocities continue to pile up. Foreclosure fraud is rampant, the facts of the global financial crisis show serious legal problems for the bankers that created it, and yet the SEC is “taking a light touch” with the banks and bank executives apparently are getting Scooter Libby justice. (Have you heard the news? Goldman Sachs is likely to “face fresh embarrassment” over their role in the global financial crisis.) And as long as we’re talking about military action without congressional authorization, meet Libya.
If the need was great in 2008, it’s off the charts today.
But back to that candidate . . . skipping ahead in his remarks a bit:
However, all too often, when we talk about unity in this country, we’ve come to believe that it can be purchased on the cheap. . . We offer unity, but we are not willing to pay the price that’s required.
Of course, true unity cannot be so easily purchased. It starts with a change in attitudes. It starts with changing our hearts, and changing our minds, broadening our spirit. It’s not easy to stand in somebody else’s shoes. It’s not easy to see past our own differences. We’ve all encountered this in our own lives. What makes it even more difficult is that we have a politics in this country that seeks to drive us apart, that puts up walls between us. We are told that those who differ from us on a few things, differ from us on all things, that our problems are the fault of those who don’t think like us or look like us or come from where we do. The Welfare Queen, she’s taking our money. The Immigrant, he’s taking our jobs. The believer condemns the nonbeliever as immoral, and the nonbeliever chides the believer for being intolerant.
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 divisions, the stereotypes, the scapegoating, the ease with which we blame the plight of ourselves on others — all of that distracts us from the common challenges that we face, war and poverty, inequality and injustice. We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing each other down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It’s the poison that we must purge from our politics, the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late. Because if Dr. King could love his jailer, if he could call on the faithful, who once sat where you do, to forgive those who had 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 sympathy deficit that exists in our hearts.
But if changing our hearts and our minds is the first critical step, we cannot stop there. It’s not enough to bemoan the plight of the poor in this country and remain unwilling to push our elected officials to provide the resources to fix our schools. It’s not enough to decry the disparities of health care and yet allow the insurance companies and the drug companies to block real reform in our health care system. It’s not enough — It’s not enough for us to abhor the costs of a misguided war, and yet we continue to allow ourselves to be driven by a politics of fear that sees the threat of an attack as a way to scare up votes instead of a call to come together in a common effort. . .
Boy, did he nail it on that one. As far as I can tell, the politics of fear is what makes DC run these days, not only on terrorism but on the budget, health care, social security, and everything else.
I wonder what ever happened to that guy. We sure could use someone like this in DC to take on the fear-mongers.
Say, did you hear that President Obama is going to give a speech on Wednesday, addressing deficit reduction? As the Washington Post headline writer summed things up, “Obama’s New Approach to Deficit Reduction to include Spending on Entitlements.”
Before he speaks on Wednesday, maybe Obama should go listen to what that presidential candidate had to say at Ebenezer Baptist Church a couple of years ago.