Sunday, January 16, 2011

"everywhere we look, there is work to be done"

A Homily Delivered to
Dakota UU Church, January 16, 2011,

Tomorrow we break from our busy lives to commemorate the life of a man whose passion for equality and peace was ended by an assassin’s bullet 48 years ago. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a particular hero of mine. Despite his faults, and as we’ve discovered in the decades since his death he had many, as any man does, he was a good man who wanted good things for his people. Usually that phrase when used in connection with King means black people or poor people or the disenfranchised, but Dr. King considered all Americans his people and he wanted all of them to be safe and happy and equal with one another.

It’s not a struggle that ended with his death or shortly after it. As President Barack Obama said in his 2008 inauguration speech, “everywhere we look, there is work to be done.” Everywhere we look, children sleep on the street huddled next to their parents. Everywhere we look, people lose their jobs and their homes in a desperate and halting economy. Everywhere we look, angry people seeking scapegoats for their losses and their problems try to cull the weakest from among us by eradicating programs and rolling back progressive gains, as if to have a good life is a finite thing and the fewer others they share it with the more there is for them.

Their photographs have become ubiquitous. Smiling Christina Taylor-Green, nine years old, killed at a political gathering. Federal judge John Roll, killed at the same gathering. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, shot in the brain at a public meet-and-greet in a grocery store parking lot. Grinning, shave-headed Jared Lee Loughner, the shooter who, by accounts we piece together after the fact, intended to die in a hail of police bullets, a martyr to the cause of—well, we’re not entirely certain of that yet, but it seems to involve grammar. Less known are the names of the other people killed and I mention them here because they ought to be remembered. In addition to Taylor-Green and Roll, they are Dorothy Morris, a retired secretary; Phyllis Schneck, a homemaker; Gabriel Zimmerman, a member of Giffords’ staff; and Dorwin Stoddard, a retired construction worker.

Nearly five decades after Dr. King was killed by a single bullet on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and on a day when we ought to be reflecting on the life he gave in the cause of freedom, we mourn the deaths of six people killed by automatic gunfire at a political event in a public place. Clearly, everywhere we look, there is work still to be done.

That Laughnor is mentally ill seems an inescapable conclusion but one that neither excuses nor explains the actions he took and the lives he ended. A week after the event, we remain a society gripped by the conversation of why he did what he did, who was responsible, and what we ought to do in the future to avoid a repeat. On a day like tomorrow, we would do well to reflect that for months after his assassination, we had no idea who killed Martin Luther King, Jr., and why and rumors and theories abounded. In this instance, while we have the killer in a shorter time and are reasonably certain of his identity, we are no closer to understanding why he did it than we were those terrible months in spring and summer 1968. Nearly five decades after Dr. King was killed, we remain mournful and no closer to understanding why some people take up a gun and shoot it at other people. Clearly, everywhere we look, there is work yet to be done.

In this national conversation the idea that rhetoric can have consequences, that words spoken for calculated political effect can lead to actions that they aren’t intended to lead to, should not be denied. That the easiness with which a young troubled man banned from a campus for violent talk and angry behavior can legally purchase both a Glock 9mm automatic pistol, a weapon that has no target or hunting value, a weapon which exists only to kill people in as efficient a way as possible, and 30-round magazine ammunition for it, ammunition until recently banned by federal law because it too only existed for one thing and that was to hit as many people as possible in a short burst, that the easiness and legality with which this happened suggests that something is wrong also should not be denied. Clearly, everywhere we look, there is work still to be done.

What do we do in a world where men and women and nine year old girls become targets and collateral damage? We are doing it. We mourn. We celebrate the lives of those who work for a better, more peaceful world. We work toward peace ourselves, sometimes putting ourselves in the line of fire whether we are aware of it or not, we venerate the names and lives of those who have done so. We look around us. We see that everywhere we look, there is work to be done. And we get to work.

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