A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in New York City, April 4, 1967
From this moment on, I choose the truth of connection. You here with me and me here with you. Even when you feel yourself most alone, I am holding you. And maybe you don’t know it, but you are holding me.
You learned the language from your teachers, from your family, your neighbors. They were doing their best to love you. To open up stories and opportunities for you. The books on your shelves, on your bedside table, gathering dust. Those authors were writing to you. They were telling that story out of love for you. They were trying to find you.
The songs that bubble up from the recesses of memory. The lullabies, the rock anthems, the familiar riffs of pieces of Mozart or Coltrane, all reaching across time, across string, through the hollow belly of the bass, through the vibrations across the sky to you.
Not because you are the center of the universe, no. Quite the opposite. Because the universe has no center. It has nodes and connections, like any spiderweb, like any map of the stars. And you are one, and you are part, and you matter to me, and I to you.
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.
When I say I choose the truth of connection, what I mean is that this nation, this United States, grew up from the poisoned lie that Black lives matter less than white lives. That Black lives only matter insofar as they can enrich white supremacy. And if they are not working in the interest of white supremacy, then they must be controlled, punished, eliminated. This lie infects every part of your American experience, from the medical care your mother received when you were conceived to your schooling to your neighborhood to your meals to your entertainment to your jobs to your laws to your police to your military to your heroes and villains.
If Black lives only exist to enrich white lives, it means something terrible about every life. It means that human beings are valuable only for the enrichment and empowerment of a select few. Those with wealth and political pull, they decided yesterday that it was the Black person. They may decide today that it’s me. Tomorrow it’s you. If someone only matters for the enrichment of a shrinkingly small gang of rich and powerful people, then you’d better produce. You have no value if you become injured or disablied. If your company moves to Bangladesh. If you have small children or a sick mother to care for. If you, for some reason, can’t bring them wealth, then you are nothing.
This leaves you with an unshakable sense of instability. By design, your physical, financial, and familial well-being is precarious. The economy is fickle and beyond your control. Your vote is ineffective. There is no such thing as a union, and the deductible is too high to get that back surgery you need, and what the hell is retirement? Of course you look for clear threats and simple solutions. Of course I become a threat to you.
I am not a threat to you.
I am the same as you.
This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept — so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force — has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man.
From this moment on, I choose the truth of connection.
The illusion of individual autonomy has failed us. I sit here on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday celebration in my isolation — one of those privileged enough to isolate — during this raging pandemic. A few miles east of me, 20,000 members of the National Guard are gathering at the razor-wire perimeter that now surrounds Capitol Hill.
It can feel like there is so little I can do, while all around me, people are suffering, scared, grieving.
Does it feel this way to you too?
Indeed, there is little you can do. You grapple with the dissonance between the narrative of your significance and the catalogue of your failings. A part of you fears there is something you are missing, that only if you tried a little harder and thought a little smarter and took a little more risk, you really could Make A Difference.
You in your home alone and me in my home alone. You trying to hammer out a direction, me trying to form an identity of purpose. The toxic myth of individualism — the twin of that founding lie — keeps us ineffective. You read your articles on your news site of choice and I engage in slacktivism on social media. You shout into your echo chamber and I try to ease the sense of rage and futility by doing the good things for myself that all the wellness gurus say to do, like speaking aloud my affirmations and making a list of gratitudes.
There is very little you can do. There is almost nothing I can do.
But we? We together? We can do so much more.
Deep down in your bones you know this. Deep down in my heart, I do too. Because your bones are not yours entirely — your bones are the bones of your siblings and neighbors, the food grown out of the soil by farmers and shipped by truckers and stocked by grocers. My heart is not mine entirely — it is the heart of my grandparents and the breath of trees and the water from clouds and creeks and the iron at the core of the earth.
Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says : “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”
Your school did not have you study the playbooks of the humanizing movements for social change. They assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. then sprayed his legacy in gold and lifted him up as an idol. They made you believe that change happened because of him (and maybe also one woman who refused to give up her seat on the bus). Because you are not him and I am not him and no one we can see around us is him, no one person can really make much difference.
When you begin to study the playbooks, you find out something that upends the myth of individualism and its twin lie that Black lives matter less than white lives. You find the people, the hundreds of thousands of people throughout history, who have joined with others to ensure an inheritance of possibility for those who come later. That inheritance, even, for you. When you study the playbooks, you find that what you do alone matters very little but what you do with the truth of connection is world-changing. You find that you are not the You that you think you are, and I am not the Me that you think I am. You find that we are actually an us, and that between us is a force so stunning that we can hardly imagine it.
We have to start imagining it.
The force, of course, is love.
When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.
The supreme unifying principle of life.
This is why I choose the truth of connection.
Because I have decided to belong to the humanizing movement to make love whole in our institutions, our schools, our work, our neighborhoods, our world. This is a movement that grows from us. It does not exist as some place you can go out and visit, that I can dip into and take a selfie. It is a living thing that draws from what we create between us. Into the space where we join ourselves to each other, it sinks its roots deep.
It weaves its way down into that centuries-old legacy of justice that has resisted the lie of our nation’s founding.
It draws on the centuries-old legacy of believing in the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings.
It carries up into the light the centuries-old legacy of acting with great courage to set the world right.
The truth of connection returns us to all the love that has held us always, even when we didn’t know it was there. The love that have given us voice. And songs. And stories. And companions. And paths through pain. And prophetic vision. And moments of elation. And moments of grief that are themselves gifts.
Love that is our birthright. Yours. Mine. Ours. Our birthright, the one that comes before the lie, the one that flourishes after the truth has taken its rightful place.
I choose the truth of connection because we are made of love.
Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world.
Quotations: “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” Speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City