Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a couple of events honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I have always considered him among the three most impactful Americans in history…along with Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. In listening to the various speakers, from faith leaders to academics to children, there is tremendous personal renewal in considering Dr. King’s mission and our progress in it.
More than perhaps any time since the late 1960s, America faces choices that will determine if it will “live out the true meaning of its creed”. A critical look into today’s America reveals a re-emergence of homelessness in our cities as we face the consequences of a crisis in affordable housing and heavy funding cuts for mental health and addiction treatment. We see deep rural pockets of extreme poverty, including areas in Alabama where water is no longer safe for the residents and long-eradicated diseases, are appearing from the poisoned ground. We have 40 million Americans (including 15 million children) living in poverty. We see increased racial animosity, with white supremacists like Richard Spencer rising in popularity through social media and even receiving occasional mainstream attention. We have aggressive voter suppression tactics underway across America intended to discourage minority voting, and fully documented after the death of one of the pioneers of these tactics. Minority-majority school systems suffer financially due to the inequitable taxation systems used to fund them, and the chances of rising from one’s circumstances are greatly diminished. Over 40 million Americans have no health coverage, 80% of them either working or dependents…nearly 4 million are children. There is also the nearly forgotten issue that in 2019, the United States detained nearly 70,000 migrant children, forcibly separating them from their parents for more time than ever before.
And what has been our national response? On homelessness…blame the libs. On poverty..they must be lazy. On white supremacy…according to Tucker Carlson of Fox News it’s not a real problem. On voter suppression…that’s just politics. On inequitable school funding…give more money to private schools. On healthcare…just destroy the Affordable Care Act and we’ll come up with something later. On family separation…hey, they’re criminals anyway right?
Dr. King once said that “it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
There’s a hell of a lot of “who cares” cruelty out there right now, and that’s a sad situation in a nation with so much wealth and the potential to be so much greater. We simply have to do better. We will likely never eradicate poverty. In fact, in Matthew 26, Jesus tells us as much. However, the cold and callous response of many on the right to these very real and very painful issues should give us pause. If we are not capable of looking at these problems and determining to work towards addressing them out of sheer love for our fellow man, then we have failed the Greatest Commandment, and we have allowed Dr. King’s dream to die.
For people of faith, the lesson of Dr. King is that it is not enough to simply say you love God. Our faith must be reflected in our actions…and the actions of those we support. If the people and policies you support are not actively engaged in improving the lives of “the least of these”, then how can you stand before God and honestly say that you loved your neighbor as yourself? If the policies and people you support are disenfranchising people of color for political victory and not working every day to rid this country of white nationalism in ALL of its forms, will you stand before God and argue that you loved your creator but viewed your fellow man with indifference in your heart? Did you not argue for justice when the unequal application of it is so apparent all around you?
I actually had a clergyman tell me that he disagrees with some current policies and statements, but his 401k is doing so well right now! I couldn’t help but think of camels and needles.
As we come into an election year, you will hear talk about universal health care, equitable education funding, mass incarceration, compassionate immigration policy, and other issues that directly affect those least capable of defending themselves. It is fine to disagree with political policy but put forth a counter-proposal. If you have a better way to help those in need, those suffering injustices, or those who cannot help themselves, then speak it…or just admit that you actually do not care (that is tough for most people to do).
This is where we are called to pick up Dr. King’s mantle and continue the fight. Racism (both personal and institutional), poverty, inequality, and injustice cannot be ignored or excused.
In his legendary Letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr. King writes that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” To show a lack of compassion or indifference to suffering, or toleration for injustice is to embrace the worst aspects of our sinful nature. It is un-Christian.
In Dr. King’s memory, I hope this year we decide that we want no part of being an angry, cruel, indifferent society. That would be a beginning to dream fulfillment.
Jeremy Jeffcoat is an Alexander City resident and former candidate for Alabama House District 81.