How fitting it is that this weekend’s shabbat observance, which I plan to share with the B’nai Tzedek Congregation in Potomac, coincides with two other weekend celebrations: Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the swearing-in of President Obama.
There is much to commemorate: the exodus to freedom from slavery in Egypt; the life and legacy of America’s foremost civil rights leader; and a changing United States that reelected its first black president.
But delve deep below this weekend’s celebratory moments and consider our world with introspection, and you might well be led to an observation that King made in 1954, one that still holds true.
In a sermon in Detroit, he said that you didn’t have to look far to see that something was basically wrong with our world.
Society, he said, has more knowledge today than people have had in any period of human history, whether the topic is mathematics, science, social science or philosophy.
“The trouble isn’t so much that we don’t know enough,” King preached, “but it’s as if we aren’t good enough.”
The trouble isn’t so much that our scientific genius lags behind, he said, but that our moral genius has not caught up.
Through our scientific advances, such as the building of jet aircraft that can transect the globe, we have made the world a neighborhood, King said.
But morally, he said, we’ve failed to make it a brotherhood.
Consider these words: “It is high time to assess how many [members of parliament] and government members are of Jewish origin and who present a national security threat.”
Do you think those evil thoughts were expressed during Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich? Marton Gyongyosi of the neo-Nazi Jobbik Party of Hungary spoke those words last fall.
The fire of anti-Semitism that reduced a once-thriving Hungarian Jewish population to a third of its size still smolders. The smoke also rises in other parts of the world.
Some government leaders condemned Gyongyosi’s remarks, belatedly. But there are plenty of others, such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who belong in Gyongyosi’s camp.
They remind us, just as King preached at the tender age of 29, that we still aren’t good enough. King declared that some things are right and some things are wrong, eternally and absolutely.
And there still exists one undeniable wrong that must be faced.
Despite scientific and technological advances that have taken us to places unthought of only a few years ago, in 2013 bigotry has global dimensions. It represents a moral challenge to the world.
King spoke of creating a worldwide fellowship that lifts concern “beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation.” Embrace all mankind, he said.
Now that is a tough call for an American president, to move from national to ecumenical concerns.
Fixing the economy, rebuilding infrastructure, strengthening the middle class, managing the debt, protecting our homeland, defending the vulnerable and changing gun laws are presidential priorities that can’t wait. They all cry out for action.
But bigotry is a global curse, a growing cancer on the world. Can America turn a blind eye to hatred?
Would that the questions stopped there.
Is hatred a popular subject for a reelected Barack Obama to address? The polls would probably say no.
We have enough on our hands here at home, is the common answer. What do ethnic and religious rivalries have to do with us, anyway?
Besides, is it good politics? The politicians probably would universally say no. There are no votes in taking on world hate.
But is it the right thing to do?
King would say yes.
Not because he believed that a word from the president of the United States would change the world.
But King might contend that the president of a racially, ethnically and religiously diverse nation founded on the principles of liberty and equal rights — however haltingly observed in the past — has an obligation to take sides against bigotry wherever it is found.
King wrote from his Birmingham jail cell that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“We are” he said, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What ever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Bear this in mind as we gather this weekend to remember, rejoice and observe.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.