The language we use to describe ourselves and our problems shapes our action or justifies our inaction...
Have you ever taken one of those quizzes online to find out exactly what political party or religion you are? After answering a bunch of questions about good, evil, life after death, the Creator, etc. one site proclaimed me a Buddhist neo-Pagan.
I had a Christian friend take the test. She seemed far more Jewish than I, often admonishing me for not being a good enough Jew. She hung Jewish dreidels on her Christmas tree and talked a fair bit about Israel.
I told her she was Jewish.
Then site told her she was Jewish.
"I knew it!!" I shouted with glee.
We collapsed into laughter.
I hoped she wouldn't ask me more about my "Buddhist neo-Pagan" diagnosis. She didn't.
I tried a political test too.
I wanted to see where I landed on the political map based on a series of questions about economic reform, immigration, domestic liberty (same sex marriage, etc), international policy and so on. The little program determined I was "a moderate." I fell squarely in the middle of the X-Y!
It was not until I read Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" last month when I started to think that the moderate made me more than a wet noodle; it maybe made me dangerous.
King talks about his disappointment with the white moderate. He says, during the Civil Rights Movement, white moderates really needed to take a stand against injustice and to better understand that "we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."
In talking specifically about the white moderate, King writes, "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."
Now, I cannot feel too responsible for the actions (or, rather, inaction) of said moderates during the 1960s. I was not born yet. No one can deny, however, that this world is just as filled with inequity as the it was in April of 1963 when King wrote the letter.
We are now so aware of these injustices. Travel, social media and my doctoral program showed me the millions that sit in American jails, displaced persons from the Middle East, the beheading of alleged adulterous women every Saturday in small towns in Saudi Arabia, imprisoned Russian political prisoners, and those living with various wounds caused by rape, persecution, and exclusion.
What would King have us do in the face of all this? From his jail cell he declared, "injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action."
He applauds by name the white social revolutionaries who "languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality..."
He says injustice must be rooted through powerful action with a spirit of "urgency."
Every day I sit in the question of what "powerful action" must occur. I'm not really excited about "languishing in a filthy, roach infested jail"...I've got to be honest. I love those I have met who are...
King's words resonate today. In today's New York Times, op-ed writer Krastev says Russian ministers told him, "What runs the Kremlin today is not Mr. Putin’s will but his ambiguity. Wars among different power factions, as a result, have escalated."
Here we see it is Putin's moderation that makes him so dangerous, not his hegemony.
So what then to do with this new-found truth? I'm not sure..
This past week my actions were simple; I treated a unknown child with so much dignity, she followed me out the door; I helped an elderly woman put on her sock and helped another with a broken wrist through the streets of New York. I celebrated the rich culture of Harlem and chatted with its residents and let an angry Ukrainian I met in the street talk my ear off about how the Russian people support Putin.
This feels a far cry from King's call to action. I now know why he keeps his arms folded his Washington D.C. monument. It's the constant reminder that not enough has been done.
It's not enough, true. At least now I'm less proud of being a moderate and more on alert to shower with respect anyone who crosses my path.