Martin Luther King Day, January 16, 2017
A Good Heart Is Not Enough – One Must First Know the Problem
First, I want to thank Rev. Hill for sharing his pulpit on this auspicious occasion as we honor the life and memory of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King.
And I humbled by the request of Diane Daniels on behalf of the NAACP for inviting me to share some of my thoughts with you this afternoon.
I have been honored for a number of years to be invited to participate in a very small way in this program and have been moved by the passion in the voices of those who preceded me this day. And though my oratorical skills cannot match those that I have been privileged to hear in those years, I can only hope that my words will help me succeed in my efforts with you.
A coincidence of life fell upon me yesterday as I began to translate the thoughts that had rolled around my mind these past few days. But before I began, as is my weekly practice I perused very quickly yesterday’s New York Times Book Review. I generally glance at the nonfiction books and see if there is anything recently published that catches my fancy and take it out of the library to see whether it is a worthwhile read.
Well, as luck would have it, there on page 11 of the Review was a Book that captured the essence of my thoughts. Of course, I have not had a chance to acquire the book, let alone read it, so I would like to share the comments of the Book Reviewer. The book, Tears We Cannot Stop, is written by Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, the author of about ten other books. Perhaps those of you in the audience are familiar with Professor Dyson, but I was not.
The book is not a treatise on race relations. Rather, it is, and I quote from the Review, “a fiery sermon, and a personal appeal to White America.” The reviewer, himself a member of “White America”, continues by characterizing the book as, and again I quote, “one of the most frank and searing discussions of race I have ever read.” And he concludes his review by saying that this book needs to be placed on the shelf with James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” and Dr. King’s “Why We Can’t Wait.”
But it is not the substance of Professor’s Dyson’s message as relayed through the reviewer that I bring to your attention. Rather, it is the fact that he is taking the time to tell “White America” the real problem that WE are responsible for. He is trying to teach us, the “white folk” of America, — even those who stand with you today, including myself, that we are the problem. It is not that we are bad people, but that we don’t understand; and until we do understand, we are not in a position to be able to help solve the problems.
These words ring in my ear as I share with you a personal experience that I faced a couple of months ago. It was a few days after the election. After the initial shock occasioned by our reliance on the pre-election polls began to recede, many of those who were on the losing side recognized that we could not simply sit back and wait four years. An instinctual reaction overtook us that we needed to do something. And this response was felt by those within the White community who may not feel personally threatened by what many — but in fairness not all — perceived to be a new reality. We recognized that there were other groups who did register that fear; and irrespective of whether that fear was warranted, that it was incumbent upon us to reach out to those communities, to let them know that they were not alone. And so, like many others, I posted my commitment on various social media, again to let those affected communities that I, as well as others, was with them.
I thought I was being righteous.
Well, you can imagine my surprise, no my shock, when I read the remarks of an Afro-American woman who essentially said something along the following:
“You White America think that you understand what we go through in this country. Well, don’t think your reaction to what has just transpired over the last 48-72 hours makes you an expert on what we face every day. You can make all of the expressions of support you want, but until you REALLY UNDERSTAND” – and I remember her putting those last two words in big capital letters – “until you REALLY UNDERSTAND what we confront, your fancy expressions of support aren’t worth a damn.”
At that point my shock began to move into anger. She was calling me, the guy who wanted to help, an insensitive member of White America.
But after I got over my immediate defensive reaction, I began to reflect. Perhaps she was right: How could I possibly know what her problems really were.
–I could go on marches.
–I could sign petitions.
–I could undertake letter writing campaigns.
–I could make expressions of support and solidarity
–I could make donations of money.
But at the end of the day, I go back to my safe environs and she goes back to the same evils of discrimination that she suffers from on a 24/7 basis. I can let my investment of an hour or two or three day sooth my consciousness – but not produce anything meaningful.
In sum, I didn’t know enough about the ailment that I thought I was trying to help overcome. The best wishes in the world would amount to virtually nothing, if I was going to proceed blindly in this fashion.
And why not? I wouldn’t imagine my doctor curing my sickness if she didn’t know everything about it. So, why should I think that this sickness could be cured any differently. My “good heart” was of little value, if I did not also invest the time to fully understand the problem.
Being a clergy person, I could not try to tackle this problem without guidance from the Lord, as reflected in Scripture. Well, whenever I try to address a problem with the assistance of my Bible, I am overwhelmed to try to seek the answer from the enormity of the inspirations contained in it, or else I would spend days, or even weeks, trying to find THE source.
So, I’ve come up with a “trick” if you will, to limit my search. You see, in the Jewish calendar year, which you may know begins and ends about mid-September each year, each week we read a portion of the Torah, or as you may know it as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses, so that each year we complete a cycle of its entirety and then repeat the same the following year, and the year after that, and so on.
The portion of the annual cycle that we read this week is the first few chapters in the Book of Exodus. And boy, Scripture did not let me down.
As I studied the first two chapters, I was struck by the number of times that one person came to the assistance of another. On each occasion we find people who are moved to help others needing assistance.
The story opens as a new Pharaoh arises over Egypt who does not know Joseph. Meanwhile, the Israelites have flourished, and the Pharaoh, feeling threatened, oppresses the Israelites by ruthlessly imposing hard labor on them. When this policy doesn’t succeed in suppressing the birthrate, Pharaoh then institutes a policy of killing every Israelite newborn boy.
Three stories immediately follow the announcement of this policy showing different forms of resistance to this murderous decree:
First, the Hebrew midwives, “fearing God, did not do as the Pharaoh had commanded; they let the boys live.” When confronted by Pharaoh, they invent an explanation: the Hebrew women would give birth before the midwives had a chance to come to them.
The next two stories are intertwined. Moses’ mother gives birth to a son and hides him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she put him in a wicker basket and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him.
At the same time, Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” The baby’s sister then offers to find a Hebrew nurse, bringing their mother to Pharaoh’s daughter, who hires her. When the child is weaned, Pharaoh’s daughter makes him her son, naming him Moses.
In each of these three stories, a woman comes face to face with another human being, and cannot ignore his plight under Pharaoh’s decree. Whether the woman is a midwife, the birth mother, or a stranger, the moment she is holding this other human being in her arms, hears the child cry or looks at his face, she feels responsible for him.
She immediately responds with compassion, and in the case of the midwives, with awe for God.
And yet, perhaps it is only the cry of a little baby that is thrust upon each of these women that denies their ability to resist, and more importantly leads to success.
So, let me share with you one final episode from these first two chapters of Exodus. We now meet Moses having grown to be a fine young man.
Recall he grew up in the house of Pharaoh, in effect Pharaoh’s grandson. No doubt in that position he had to have been informed that the Israelites were being oppressed in their state of slavery. And as we will see shortly, he was also aware of his Hebrew identity. Yet even with that awareness, he did not lift a finger to help them. However, once he became awakened to their actual plight and not solely rely on the second or third hand accounts of the oppression that were discussed in the royal court, a different result occurs. As Scripture tells us:
“Moses went out to his brothers, and looked on their burdens; and he spied an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brothers. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.”
Moses did nothing to help those in need when he was only generally knowledgeable through second hand accounts, even though he knew they were his “brothers”. It was only when “he went out to his brothers, and looked on their burdens”, that he was moved to take action. And when he does, he succeeds.
And, of course, we all know that armed with the complete picture of the Israelites’ suffering that he is to learn from God, well, he succeeds big time!
We know this to be true. We learn from the 20th century Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas, that the most basic experience of seeing the face of another person in desperate danger — whether a known person or a stranger, immediately creates a bond of responsibility. And it is this personal awareness of the victim’s circumstances that automatically triggers the exercise of the humanity that resides within us. I experienced this effect first hand just this past week. There is an exhibition at the Otis Library, titled EXPLORING HUMAN ORIGINS: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE HUMAN sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington that is traveling to select communities throughout the United States, and Norwich has been blessed with being one of the fortunate few to participate. The Norwich area clergy were invited to take a special tour, following which we held a meeting with the Smithsonian representatives. One of them asked us whether we would promote the exhibition to our respective congregations, no doubt curious whether the apparent conflict between the Theory of Evolution and the Creation story in Genesis would deter any of us from recommending the exhibit to our congregants. But one of the answers moved in an entirely different direction. Rather than address the apparent conflict with Scripture, one of my colleagues, Reverend Issac Goodwater, said that he didn’t think his congregants would attend for a different reason: they struggle each day to try to make ends meet just for that day alone, that they wouldn’t have any time left over to be able to visit the exhibition. He acknowledged that it was something that would interest them; but that even though the exhibit is here in Norwich through February 7, he just didn’t think there would be any time for them to come and share in the experience. As I sat in quiet listening to my colleague, I couldn’t help but understand the full import of what he was saying: What I consider a basic aspect of human existence and the one that distinguishes us from the rest of Creation — the right to develop one’s mind, poverty was so great among his parishioners that they would be denied the opportunity to enrich their minds. As I pondered this reality, I began to cry. Not outwardly – I’m a clergy person and ought not show my emotion publicly, especially when I hold myself out as being sensitive to the less fortunate in our society. But inside of me, tears were flowing. My colleague’s remarks pierced my heart. In effect, the knowledge that entered my intellect – the illuminating, stark details of the poverty of his parishioners that prevented them from this basic human power to engage in thinking, overwhelmed me even with my general awareness that there are those in Norwich who were struggling. It was this graphic description of their reality that gave me a better appreciation of the poverty they were living through. It is this first-hand knowledge that moved Moses to take action that he never considered earlier. It was only when “he went out to his brothers, and looked on their burdens” that he undertook the necessary measures that would succeed. And it was my colleague Reverend Goodwater’s sharing of the personal detail of his parishioners’ troubles, even if he exaggerated their reality, that made me re-double my efforts in defining better how my efforts can make a meaningful, and not simply a symbolic, contribution. So, what am I telling you. Just as Professor Dyson informs, only when we truly know and understand the difficulties of discrimination: the rejections, the disregard, the absence of humanity that is endured, only then can we begin to treat the sickness. We cannot simply hope that like the Biblical women I referenced earlier, the face of desperation will be thrust upon us. For sure, if we are so “fortunate” to personally witness the effects of discrimination, I have no doubt we will respond. But we cannot sit back and wait for that event. We must be like Moses, we must go out and seek our “brothers” and try to understand as best we can in the color of the skin that we bear, the extensiveness of this evils of discrimination, and worse. But just like Professor Dyson, you who know this first hand, must tell us. Those who are the subject of the discrimination, both explicit and implicit, need to continue to educate us in a frank and candid manner, just as Reverend Goodwater did for me this past week, as to all of the problems you confront. Don’t be reserved in sharing your experience, if to do so fails to fully convey the subjects that you want to educate us about. And trust me, when you do, most of us will not shirk away.
If we have already committed ourselves to action, the enhanced awareness that is added to our knowledge base can only motivate us to help even more. As a member of “White America” I have come to realize that I cannot simply rely on my being a “good person” if I truly want to help. To paraphrase the remarks of the book reviewer, Professor Patrick Phillips, “We may wince upon hearing that our indifference to black suffering is named with such precision. And to be sure, there may be those who will desperately seek not to face our involvement in America’s systems of racial oppression.”
But until we wake from our sleep of ignorance, all the best wishes that we have will not do a lick of good.
And with that challenge to me and those others in the White American community who will accept our responsibility, I also challenge the African American community as well, to help us better understand what it is like to be black in America in the 21st century.
Only when we all understand fully the challenges that:
–those who discriminate,
–and those who are discriminated against,
both face in their respective communities, only then will we have a chance to successfully overcome the sickness that continues to persist within all of our communities.