Forty years ago, I was in the crowd that heard Martin Luther King speak along with many others at the Lincoln Memorial, before about 240,000 people. They gathered to demand that America meet its commitment to provide both Jobs and Freedom.
On August 23, I had the honor of speaking at a rally at the same place, commemorating the March of 40 years ago—but more important, initiating a 15-month “rolling mobilization” aimed at getting millions of voters to the polls from communities of color and the poor. People who are being deeply damaged by the present rulers of the United States—so deeply damaged that many of them feel too dispirited to vote.
Among the speakers at this rally were Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King III, and Congressman John Lewis; Bob Edgar, head of the National Council of Churches; Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Walter Fauntroy, and Rev. Al Sharpton; the heads of the National Organization for Women, National Education Association, MoveOn.org, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force; Jim Zogby of the Arab American Institute; Mahdi Bray as well as leaders of several other strands of Islam in America; Leslie Cagan of United for Peace and Justice; and alongside these leaders from two previous generation of American political life, a number of new-generation Black and Latino activists, as well as the head of the US Student Association.
Mine was the only voice from an explicitly Jewish organization, The Shalom Center.
I drew on echoes of two stories of liberation that are deep at the core both of Jewish values and of broadly American values—the story of the Exodus, and the Declaration of American Independence. I drew on them in an approach that renews and transforms them, just as the rally itself drew on and renewed the March of 1963.
After this text I will include some thoughts on strategy for change in America —especially on how we might use these echoes of these two stories in recreating the Beloved Community of nonviolent activism that gathered in 1963, and in transforming the American government.
Remarks by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director of The Shalom Center
At the 40th Anniversary Gathering to RETURN, REPAIR, RENEW, 1963-2003 —in recommitment to the vision of the Great March for Jobs and Freedom of August 1963. ******
There is an ancient Jewish prayer that we say when in the spiral of time we reach a moment of transformation - not merely a commemoration of the past, but a birthing of the future:
Blessed are You, the Breathing-spirit of the world, who has filled us with life, lifted us up, and carried us to this moment. Barukh attah Yahhh, elohenu ru’akh ha’olam, sheh-hekhianu v’kimanu v’higianu lazman hazeh.
And I begin as well, as our Muslim brothers and sisters throughout the world begin - In the Name of God. In the Name of the God of compassion, the God of justice, the God Who calls us into the beloved community.
In the Name of the God Who forbids the killing of innocents—whether in the churches and back roads of Alabama and Mississippi or the street corners of Detroit, whether on the tip of Manhattan or in the neighborhoods of Baghdad, whether on the buses of Jerusalem or in the apartment houses of Gaza City.
In the Name of the God Whose very name in ancient Hebrew is not a Hebrew word but a breathing that includes and transcends all languages, all peoples, all species -the name that can only be pronounced by breathing - YHWH.
I invite you for a moment to look into the faces close around you - each face so different, each face the face of God. And to look at the green faces of God as well - the grasses and the trees - for what the trees breathe out is what we breathe in, what we breathe out is what the trees breathe in.
Each face, the Face of God.
In the Name of God Who is the Breath, the Wind, the Rushing-spirit of the world, Who comes sometimes as a gentle breeze of comfort and sometimes as a hurricane of transformation:—-
The night before Dr. King was killed, he spoke of standing as Moses stood, on a mountain top where he could see the promised land of freedom - the land he might not enter, but the people would.
Ten days later he was to have taken part in the Passover Seder with his good friend, co-worker, co-marcher, co-visionary Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel - but by that time he had passed over into a different promised land.
The Passover Seder calls us to remember that the power of Pharaoh vanished before the hurricane of transformation that split the Red Sea and carried a people into freedom.
Yet the Passover Seder looks not only at those days long ago but at the present and the future. For the Seder teaches us that in EVERY generation a Pharaoh will rise against us to enslave and destroy us. And it teaches us that in EVERY generation, every human being must go out from slavery to freedom. Every one of us must become the midwives who defied Pharaoh’s murderous orders. Every one of us must become Pharaoh’s own daughter who broke the Pharaoh’s law to save a life; must become Moses, Miriam, Aaron.
Who and what is Pharaoh in our own generation?
The present government of the United States has attacked our neighbors, violated our rights, broken our laws, endangered our children, and thwarted our hopes.
The present government of the United States is strengthening racism, trying to reverse the great achievements of those who stood here 40 years ago— not only by opposing affirmative action, but by imprisoning two million people, the highest number in the world, mostly people of color.
The present government of the United States has handed over to the extremely wealthy and to great corporations tax breaks of hundreds of billions. Even the rich cannot eat more food than they do now, wear more clothes than they do now, live in more mansions than they do now. There is only one thing they can buy with those hundreds of billions of dollars - MORE POWER.
The present government of the United States is bleeding dry our own city and state governments so that they can no longer provide what the people need—health care, schools, pensions, even local police and fire protection.
The present government of the United States lied to its own citizens and broke our sacred obligations to all peoples, violating the United Nations Charter to undertake an aggressive war against a people so weak and helpless as to be a threat to no one - sending our own men and women to die and be wounded and sickened alongside tens of thousands of another people.
The present government of the United States is plundering our forests, poisoning our air, and raising high the very corporations of Big Oil that are scorching the earth and endangering the futures of our children.
The present government of the United States has endangered freedom of the press by encouraging extreme concentration of control of the news media, and by erecting high walls of secrecy around the public business of the government.
The present government of the United States has undermined the civil liberties of its citizens and shattered the human rights of its immigrants.
The present government of the United States is putting in power judges who will uphold corporate interests against those of the people, and will attack the personal dignity, privacy, and freedom of women and gay and lesbian people.
The present government of the United States has undermined the labor movement through which workers seek to protect themselves against the greed of great corporations.
In short, once again: The present government of the United States has attacked our neighbors, violated our rights, broken our laws, endangered our children, and thwarted our hopes. These abuses share one effect, one puirpose: They all concentrate more power, and still more, and yet more, into the hands of fewer and fewer of the rich and of a few corporations and a small group of would-be imperial viceroys.
That concentration of top-down power, more than any single destructive policy, is what makes “Pharaoh.”
In our own generation, who is Pharaoh? The present government of the United States.
How do Americans respond to such abuses of power? We remember how Americans respond—
We hold these truths to be self-evident:
That all men and women are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights:—
to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;
to the sharing of community;
to Jobs and Freedom—a rhythm of worthy work and sacred rest that frees time for family, neighborhood, active citizenship, and the spirit;
to a life-sustaining share of the earth’s abundance;
to peace among all peoples;
and to a responsible relationship amidst the whole web of life upon this planet.
Like our forebears in 1776, we hold THIS truth to be self-evident: That whenever any government or corporation becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right, the duty, of the people to alter or abolish it and to recreate the beloved community.
When our forebears asserted that truth, they took up the sword of war. We have changed since then: Where only some of our forebears met in Philadelphia in 1776—— just the men, just the whites, just the well-to-do, just the Christians—today we include a much wider spectrum of our true community. And we know today—we learned it forty years ago—that we can win a deeper, fuller, more just American revolution by taking up the plowshares of vigorous nonviolence than by taklng up the sword.
In the Name of the God of compassion, the God of justice, the God Who is the Breath of Life —are we prepared to act? Are we prepared to recreate the community of nonviolent action? Are we prepared to become the midwives who resisted Pharaoh, to become Pharaoh’s own daughter who broke the law to save the life of Moses, to become Moses, to become Aaron, to become Miriam?
Are we prepared to face the Pharaoh of today—- by lobbying, by voting, by demonstrating in the streets, by sitting down in those offices, those pyramids of death, that Big Oil builds?
Are we—forty years after we first gathered here—ready to become once again the beloved community?
My remarks at the Lincoln Memorial ended there. But our thinking must continue. Here are some thoughts to start with:
There are three levels of action through which we can renew America. First, we can, as the 40th anniversary rally urged, try through elections to topple the Bush administration and its acquiescent Congress. Indeed, George II and his pliant Congress have been much worse than George III and his pliant Parliament.
But even if Bush and his closest allies lose, and even more strongly if they win, America needs deeper change. Clintonism paved the way for Bush, both at home and overseas. Some Clinton Clone may give us a moment to catch our breath, but little more.
Like the colonists in 1776, like the Israelites who fled Egypt to stand at Sinai, we need to create new forms of politics, community, and culture.
In 1774, two years before the Declaration of Independence, the American colonists went beyond their dutiful critique of King George; they called for an economic break with the British Empire. “Raise sheep,” they said, “so as to free ourselves from British wool.”
So at a second level of change, we need to declare the causes and necessity of nonviolent action to create the possibilities of economic and social independence from the New American Empire.
Is Big Oil in the Global Empire today the economic equivalent of Wool in the British Empire two centuries ago? What is the equivalent of “Raise sheep?” Is it “Ride bikes”? Is it (minimally) “Buy hybrids”?
Third, we must go even deeper to uncover what pressures have scrunched
us into this Tight and Narrow Place. One profound problem is that our economy and culture do not “allow” for time to reflect. Only to react.
Individuals face intense pressure for compulsory overtime or for compulsive
overwork, and no time for family, self-reflection, grassroots politics, or spirit. Society as a whole sees no choice but the swift resort to war, to Hyper-action; our society never pauses to reflect as Christians do (or used to do) for Lent, Muslims for Ramadan, Jews for the High Holy Days.
What if we as a whole society had paused after 9/11 to reflect on what had brought us to that disaster, why indeed some human beings hate America, and how best both to bring terrorists to justice and end the noxious swamp of despair and deprivation that breeds terrorists?
A movement has begun to resist the tightening of time for individuals in America. (See the Web sites www.shalomctr.org/FreeOurTime/ and www.TimeDay.org for how to join this effort.) But we must also create reflective time for ourselves as a society.
Suppose all our communities, religious congregations, PTA’s, labor unions and professional associations were to make the days from Thursday, September 11 through Sunday, September 14, into a Season for Reflection and Renewal?
In 2002, the Bush administration used the anniversary of 9/11 to lie its head off and its heart out —to whip up spurious patriotism for war against Iraq. In 2003, let us make it a time for Muslims, Jews, and Christians to gather in each others’ holy places so that all the troubled families of Abraham, now so endangered and frightened by inter-religious violence, can speak their lives to each other, and listen.
From such a grassroots listening could come new grass-roots empowerment, to challenge and transform the newest version of top-down pyramidal power—the newest Pharaoh.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow