Today is the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Those of us who are old enough probably remember that day. At the time, I was a student at Wilmington College, a college that was integrated since its founding in 1870 and, at the time I was a student, one of the most integrated campuses in the country.
That evening, on hearing the sad news, students spontaneously flocked to Thomas R. Kelly Religious Center on campus. It was locked, but we were able to find someone to unlock it so that we could share a time of quiet prayer and reflection together.
Towards the end of his life, Dr. King was repeatedly identifying racism, materialism and militarism as the major evils of the time. He was criticized for having a broader outlook than many thought appropriate for a civil rights leader, but he refused to be intimidated and insisted that these issues are interrelated. As a prophetic minister of the Gospel, he felt the call to identify our corporate sins and call us to repentance - to turn from our evil ways towards the shalom of God. He continued to speak out on all these issues until the assassin's bullet stilled his voice.
Four decades later, what do we see when we ponder where we've comes as a society on these critical issues?
Racism. This is an area where there are some visible signs of progress. It has become common to see African-Americans and other minorities in key positions of political power, and it looks likely that an African-American will be nominated by a major party for President this year. Young people are much more likely to have friends with different ethnic backgrounds than was true of their parents' and grandparents' generations. Many of the more obvious and glaring signs of racism are no longer much in evidence.
Seeing these signs, many white Americans mistakenly assume that racism is no longer a problem, at least not a serious one, and seek to dismantle affirmative action programs. But if you look deeper, you can see many indications that racism is still a virulent cancer affecting our society. Social and economic indicators show African-Americans and Hispanics with strikingly poorer prospects than whites. Racial profiling remains a big problem. Truly ethnically diverse public schools are less common today than decades ago. We have much to do to address the legacy of centuries of slavery and acute racism.
Materialism. Dr. King recognized that the greed of materialism led to many being mired in poverty. Today our society remains gripped by consumerism and the seductive call to get enough for our greed, not just our need. The economic divide has actually been growing in recent years. The rich are getting a lot richer, while the poor remain mired in poverty. America is very wealthy, but we remain well behind most other affluent nations on key indicators of social health stemming from our failure to include everyone in the benefits of our wealth as a nation.
Militarism. This I address in my other anniversary blog entry today. Suffice it to say here that our country is addicted to military might at the expense of our own well-being and that of the whole world.
It is incumbent upon us to keep the dream alive. We need to make our own lives examples of living the values of the Biblical vision of Shalom, and seek to understand where we need to make prophetic witness to the larger society.
Fifty years ago today, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament began using the peace symbol. This was about the time I became active in the peace movement, goading my parents to spend a couple of weeks that summer in Cheyenne, Wyoming protesting the construction of a missile base. I was 10. The first peace witness I attended without my parents was two years later.
It can be very discouraging to look at where we've come in that time. There have been a number of hot wars since then, some of which the United States has been very prominent in, including two hot wars currently going on which the U.S. started. More nations have developed nuclear weapons, and the U.S. continues to have an enormous stockpile. The U.S. continues to have a bloated military budget, larger than that of all other nations combined, and hundreds of major military bases in 140 countries around the world. All three leading Presidential candidates advocate an even larger military budget.
But we should not be discouraged. There is much more going on to advocate peace than there was then. Humans have been warring for thousands of years, and it would be naive to expect that to be fully turned around in just 50 years. We must continue working for peace in the hope that our efforts do make a difference.
I was pleased to see that part of the way Virginia Tech is planning to use Norris Hall, site of the horrible violence on April 16, 2007, was to create a new Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention. According to the University's news release, the Center is "to become a world-class model combining rigorous research with hands-on engagement." The adopted proposal further states:
The Center for Violence Prevention and Peace Studies will celebrate and encourage the intellectual and emotional maturity of the students here at Virginia Tech by facilitating student-led, interdisciplinary, team-based research to enact leadership for social change at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Drawing upon skills and expertise of faculty mentors from across the university and across disciplines, the CVPPS will join the applied sciences to the humanities and intellectual pursuits to global and community service through the lenses of violence prevention and the study of peace to address such complex phenomena as historical and cultural awareness, cross-cultural communication, diversity in all its guises, socio-economic disparities, public health and safety, mental illness, economic and environmental sustainability, histories of human violence, conflict prevention, and nonviolent solutions to conflict.
Our society devotes obscene amounts of resources to developing and preparing to use means of violence. We devote far too little attention to studying how to prevent violence and how to resolve conflicts through nonviolent means. I am grateful that Virginia Tech is going to devote more attention to these critical matters as part of a constructive response to the tragedy suffered at that campus.
“Then kiss my mother on one cheek and then the other, several times, and each time, whisper into her ear the word amahoro,” he explained. “The word means peace. She'll be welcoming you into the peace of our home, and you'll be offering your peace to her. After all we've been through, amahoro is a very precious word to us.”I understand that amahoro is a word in several different African languages. It appears to convey much more than the absence of conflict, but incorporates the conditions that bring real peace. Amahoro appears to be the equivalent in many African languages to the Hebrew shalom.
“Exactly how many times should we do this . . . ?” I asked.
“We basically do it again and again, until we feel the amahoro flowing between us.”