Sunday, January 20, 2013

Free at Last!

A Sermon Delivered to the
Dakota Unitarian Universalist Church
January 20, 2013

Events have occurred since I announced the title of this sermon that make me wonder if I should have used a question mark instead of an exclamation point. The title itself, of course, is a direct quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous 1963 March on Washington Speech also known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. And tomorrow many of us have the day off in celebration of King’s birth. It will be a perfect day for watching the televised second inauguration of President Barack Obama who will take his second oath of office on Bibles previously owned by Abraham Lincoln and Dr. King.

What makes me wonder if, indeed, there’s a reason to ask if freedom is questionable is that yesterday was a different celebration. You may not have heard about this one or you may have heard about it but paid little attention to it. It was Gun Appreciation Day, the first nationally set-aside day to “rally support against anti-gun legislation and to show America that gun owners aren't 'radical crazies.'”

I know a lot of gun owners—my wife’s entire family is composed of hunters and she has explained to me that when her dad dies she will inherit the rifle he taught her to shoot with which she wants to display, which will be the first time I’ll have ever had a gun in my home—and many of us, if we don’t hunt ourselves, rely on family or friends who do to provide us with meat. Some of us served in the military where we learned to handle a weapon and use it in the way it’s meant to be, as a killing device, and took away from our service an appreciation for the power and use of guns. There are many former and current military members of my extended family and I have a friend who’s a gun rights advocate with whom I argue often about gun control, but who I also love and respect. I don’t think of any of them as either radical or crazy.

But the designers of this new-fashioned Gun Appreciation Day—or GAD as it’s called on friendly websites (and it may not be entirely coincidental how easy it is to slip from “GAD” to “God”)—while they may not be radical crazies, are at least tone deaf to the mood of most of the country, including the mood of many gun owners.

Gun Appreciation Day is the brainchild of Larry Ward, president of Political Media, Inc., a D.C. PR firm. In his announcement, Ward solemnly warns, “If the American people don't fight back now, Obama will do to the Second Amendment what he has already done to the First with Obamacare; gut it without a moment's thought to our basic constitutional rights.” How exactly a Gun Appreciation Day will accomplish that is no more explained than how the President, and the Congress and Senate and Supreme Court, all of which either voted in favor of or endorsed the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, did anything to, let alone gut, the First Amendment, but we’ll let that slide for now. The tone deafness comes from the choice of January 19th for this day, two days before both the President’s second inauguration—this president who has been the target of more death threats and animosity than any other in more than a century—and our celebration of Dr. King’s birthday—this man who was cut down by an assassin’s bullet—and a month and five days after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

I don’t think I need to remind you of what happened that day or of what you felt. But I may need to remind you of how the rest of the country felt. Most of us were decimated. That a young man could get hold of a semi-automatic gun and use it to kill, in seconds, dozens of children and adults was the stuff of nightmare. For many of us, it was the culmination of the fear we had always had.

I say “for many” and not “for all” because for some people, the idea was too fantastic, too outside how they see reality, to have happened so easily, and so has been ripe for conspiracy theories ranging from suspicions the massacre was carried out, not by Adam Lanza alone, but with help from professional snipers or Israeli commandoes in order to hasten the Obama administration’s invoking the massacre to confiscate all weapons, to the conviction that no one actually died at the scene but that it was all staged by actors who got up and walked away, and in one case supposedly even sat on the President’s lap during his appearance consoling many of the victim’s families, again with the intent of providing an excuse for confiscating guns. Is it naïve of me to point out that, if confiscation were the rationale, it would have happened by now? One similarity all these events—the Sandy Hook shooting, the shooting of Dr. King, and the President’s inauguration—have is that each has been the subject of multiple conspiracies. Perhaps then it should not be a surprise that Ward feels more comfortable suggesting the President is fomenting a clandestine shredding of the Second Amendment and not, say, recognizing his own efforts to exacerbate a poor decision about timing into a tragically demented one.

Yesterday’s Gun Appreciation Day included at least three separate incidents of what are called negligent discharge—what the rest of us would call accidental shootings—in three states. Fortunately, no one was killed. (This is, of course, not including others who were victims of gun violence.) Unfortunately, the last time I spoke here for MLK Day, two years ago, I was also talking about another recent shooting, this one Jared Laughner’s assault on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords that resulted in six deaths, among them 9 year old Christina Taylor-Green. La plus ca change…

Unlike Gun Appreciation Day the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday has a long history. I remember the battles that were played out over the choice to give MLK a holiday that involved giving working people another day off. It’s always been interesting to me that it was Ronald Reagan, a president I would never associate with progressive causes, who signed the bill into law making the third Monday of each January the day we pay honor to Dr. King. King’s actual birthday, you may know, is the 15th. But by 1983, the year Reagan signed the bill, the push to honor Dr. King, which had been building since his assassination in 1968, had reached a crescendo that simply was impossible to ignore.

Perhaps it’s a function of the “only Nixon could go to China” concept, that Reagan, a stalwart conservative Republican, would sign a bill honoring Martin Luther King. Reagan would reference that commitment to and success preaching nonviolence when he said, “Abraham Lincoln freed the black man. In many ways, Dr. King freed the white man…Where others - white and black - preached hatred, he taught the principles of love…”—and we could make a point here that, with so much involving Republicans even when they get the idea right, the focus was not on King’s accomplishments for black people but what he did for white people; but let’s let that lie—but as Lou Cannon in his magisterial President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime writes:

[Reagan] spoke movingly about King’s contributions at an observance of his birthday on January 15, 1987, urging American youth “to accept nothing less than making yours a generation free of bigotry, intolerance and discrimination.” And he took other symbolic steps…When the Washington Post reported that a suburban black family had been harassed, Reagan visited the family. He twice visited a black high school in Chicago and paid tribute to black scientists, businessmen and military heroes in a commencement address at Tuskegee University in 1987. But blacks, the most conspicuous dissenters in the “Morning Again” landslide of 1984, never gave Reagan high marks. And the skepticism about Reagan’s commitment to civil rights was not limited to blacks alone. Reagan was simply reluctant to use federal authority in the cause of punishing discrimination of any sort.

This is neither to condemn blacks as being ungrateful for his signing of the MLK bill or any of his other symbolic gestures, nor to condemn Reagan for relying simply on those symbolic gestures. When you think about it, symbolism is often a president’s only effective tool. What he focuses his attention and energies on becomes important, not only politically but culturally. For a negative version also involving Reagan, consider his response or lack of response to AIDS.

Be that as it may, the bill, which had first been introduced by Democratic congressman John Conyers and Republican senator Edward Brooke in 1968, brought to the floor of the House of Representatives in 1979, and finally passed both houses in 1983, was signed by Reagan. But that was not the end of the struggle. From the outset, there was tremendous blowback against the new holiday, primarily from Republicans (ironic, in hindsight, given the attempts by the Republican Party in the last two elections to reclaim King as one of their own).

Reluctance was spearheaded by Jesse Helms of North Carolina who insisted, based on privately obtained FBI documents, that King had been a Communist. Reagan himself, citing costs, had rejected the bill for most of his term, until it won a veto-proof majority. Most famously, Arizona’s governor, Evan Meacham, and later a 76% majority of state voters, refused to honor Dr. King but recanted after losing its place as the 1993 home to the Super Bowl. Interestingly, it wasn’t Arizona that was the last state to recognize MLK Day but New Hampshire, which had ignored the holiday throughout the 80s and created a Civil Rights Day in 1991 that it reconfigured as MLK Day in 1999. Perhaps fittingly, it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that all fifty states celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. 2000 was also the first year all fifty states recognized it as a paid holiday for all state workers.

What do we celebrate when we celebrate a holiday? We recently celebrated New Year’s Eve, a time when the clocks and the calendars take on an added importance because we have made another complete circuit around the sun. We’ll soon celebrate Presidents’ Day which is the combined honoring of two important American leaders, Washington and Lincoln, for what they accomplished—in the first case by leading the country in a war for independence and in the second for leading a war for reunion. Then we’ll start celebrating a while slew of secular holidays honoring the Irish (St. Patrick’s Day), Mexicans (Cinco de Mayo), Italians (Columbus Day), and veterans (Memorial Day). There are also what we might call holidays of the state like the Fourth of July and Flag Day and Labor Day and Thanksgiving. There are holidays devoted to the seasons like the vernal and autumnal equinoxes and winter and summer solstices and to a lesser extent Halloween, Arbor Day and Earth Day. Then there are multiple religious holidays ranging from Eid al Fitr to Yom Kippur to Diwali to Samhain to Easter and Christmas.

There are as well many days given over to celebrating specific individuals, days devoted to remembering Rosa Parks and Malcolm X and Susan B. Anthony and Father Damien. But Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is different. It is a day when we are given national time off to celebrate—what, exactly? Well, MLK’s birthday of course and the things he stood for. But what exactly is that? What are we celebrating when we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?

One of the protestations against honoring Dr. King’s birth as a national holiday is that he was a private citizen. He never held office. He did not make legislation. His birth was unremarkable and while his death was a tragedy neither is the basis for a religion or a national day of mourning. He was by all accounts a great man but he was also by many accounts a troubled man. He was instrumental in helping society see certain other people in a new and better way but he didn’t do that by anything other than the force of his speaking voice and his writing and his personality. And he didn’t do it alone. He’s a minister but he isn’t a religious figure. While he was a force for change he didn’t bring change about by himself or even introduce method for making change. He didn’t even have the standing to have brought civil rights legislation to a state government. As a citizen, he could suggest changes he thought the United States needed, but only on the local level. At most, he should have been a person who made an impassioned speech at a city ordinance meeting, perhaps that black city workers should have been paid on par with white city workers.

But he did something, something ineffable, something more than that. He led a movement—and by led I don’t mean to suggest he created the movement or gathered its people together—but he led a movement that made a major change in the ways Americans treat one another and love one another. The difference between a Gun Appreciation Day and MLK Day is that the former is a day intended to react against misplaced fears and concerns—that individual’s guns will be confiscated, that access to guns will be made more difficult—while the latter is a true appreciation to the influence an individual can have. His influence was not in having legislated treating one another well but helping us to recognize when we fail to.

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