During two days this month, America celebrated Martin Luther King Day and the inauguration of Barack Obama, our first president of color.
Yet, we are an impatient people with a penchant for instant gratification. We look to the short term for small comforts that gratify our immediate wants and then we move on to the next thing that stimulates a feeling of comfort. And, for many of us, Martin Luther King Day and Obama's inauguration were instantaneously gratifying. It is easy to turn on the television and be inspired.
But observance and ceremony, however good they may make us feel, should be the precursors to concrete actions that may be far less gratifying to us in the short run, in which exhausting, thankless work is the reality and fast progress is not.
Martin Luther King sought to persuade us to follow the less comfortable path in the greater quest for satisfaction. He told us not to be satisfied “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
We hear these words, and we remark at his command of language. We hear these words, and we remark at how effective the words were. We hear these words, and we remark at how far America has come that it has at last elected an African American president. We will say to ourselves, “Look how far we have come.”
We walk away from Martin Luther King Day vaguely gratified that we have so honored a great man, and then we go about our day in pursuit of a lifestyle of general comfort. And in this effort we expend a great deal of time and energy and minimal personal sacrifice.
This year, let us resolve to do differently. Let us not tokenize Martin Luther King Day as a reminder that racism is bad. Such a shallow observance is akin to celebrating a holiday that reminds us to eat plenty of leafy green vegetables. Let us stop merely hearing the words of Dr. King once a year and let us start feeling them always.
Let us also not tokenize Martin Luther King and Barack Obama by worshiping heroes. Martin Luther King's life was not without transgression. He was a human being, with all the flaws that come with being human, many of them in the pursuit of short-term gratification. President Obama will inevitably make mistakes during his tenure in office, and we will rightly criticize them.
But let us not use the flaws of others to discredit their real achievements and the truth of their words. And let us not use our own flaws to justify our own inaction. We should not hold infallible those with the courage to sacrifice their comfortable lifestyles for the sake of what is good and just. It does not take heroes to change the world; it takes regular people willing to invest their time and energy.
If we listen to the words of Dr. King—and I mean really listen to them—we will find that they had little to do with race as an issue. Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream” speech is a well-written speech and a ridiculously well-delivered speech, yet let us understand that it was not a mere admonition of racist institutions but a call to action that we might change them. Let us acknowledge that Dr. King did not merely speak in powerful metaphors and abstractions, and that in many of his other speeches Dr. King advocated living wages, single-payer health care, nuclear disarmament and an unqualified end to the war in Vietnam.
In his words, we will find that he calls upon us to make the personal sacrifices necessary to end injustice wherever we see it, regardless of whether we are responsible for the injustices. We will find that he calls upon us not to despair when results do not come quickly or easily, for justice is a long struggle that requires commitment, patience, discomfort and sacrifice. We will find that he calls upon us not to debase ourselves with hatred and violence, for they are a vicious cycle that invariably thwarts any progress we might hope to achieve. Hatred begets violence, violence begets hatred, and on it goes.
Like Dr. King, President Obama also asks us to reject short-term comfort for long-term satisfaction: “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, that giving our all to a difficult task.
“This is the price and promise of citizenship.”
One thousand paper cranes hang in the VU, not because they are pretty, but to remind us that peace and justice are virtue worth toiling and struggling for.
Therefore, let us replace tokenism with action. Let us become a more selfless people by redirecting the vast amounts of time and effort we so willingly invest in maintaining our own comfortable lifestyles to comforting the destitute, the starving, the victims of violence. And when we feel that our efforts are small and ineffective, let us become a more patient people by replacing instant gratification with the faith that our sacrifices shall not have been in vain.