On Monday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was remembered and replayed in venues throughout the country. King’s skill as an orator may be unparalleled in the 20th century – skills sharpened by years at the pulpit. Oh, I’ve listened to or read the text of some of King’s famous speeches, but wouldn’t it have been amazing to sit in one of his pews? Disheartened a bit by the biting rhetoric that’s played out in the pages of our paper, and those across the country, I took a seat Monday evening and imagined myself seated in the front row of a Montgomery Alabama church, fan in hand, ready to join the chorus of amens, now and again, and opened the text of several sermons.
I was encouraged that some of the civil rights rhetoric had taken on a historical note, no longer are we so bitterly divided over race. Certainly racial prejudice has not been eradicated, but there have been strides toward the dream King envisioned. The sermon that really gave me pause however was titled “Loving Your Enemies.” Delivered in 1957, some six years before the “I Have a Dream Speech,” the sermon speaks volumes about what inspired King to share his dreams.
Dr. King did not sugar-coat the difficulty of actually loving your enemies, stating plainly it would be “painfully hard, pressingly hard.” But, the alternatives are just no good. “If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil.” And the potential outcome? Pretty amazing in my view, in King’s words “so this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, ‘I love you. I would rather die than hate you.’ And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed.” Now, over 50 years later, we celebrate the man and his dreams – dreams rooted not merely in a demand for justice, but an unrelenting belief that “it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.”
After reading through King’s writings I realized I would do much better, that perhaps we all would do much better, if we took the time to look for examples of civility that exist throughout history – whether from the pulpit or from the political platform. Last week President Obama encouraged us to “pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
In his farewell address, former President George W. Bush did just that when he told the nation after President Obama’s election that “standing on the steps of the Capitol will be a man whose story reflects the enduring promise of our land. This is a moment of hope and pride for our whole nation.” Of course, if you dig a bit, it’s not so difficult to locate healing rhetoric. And in 2011 it seems as important as it was to President Lincoln in 1860 to “remember that all American citizens are brothers of a common country, and should dwell together in the bonds of fraternal feeling.” Of course, this was a man who believed that “when the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim, that a ‘drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.'” I’ll admit I had to look up the reference to a “gallon of gall” which appears used in its metaphorical sense, meaning “bitterness of temper, or ill humor” – and so I’ll have to agree with Abe on this one.
John McCain summed it up well when he cautioned that “there are too many occasions when we lack that empathy and mutual respect on all sides of our politics, and in the media. But it is not beyond us to do better; to behave more modestly and courteously and respectfully toward one another; to make progress toward the ideal that beckons all humanity: to treat one another as we would wish to be treated.”
I’ll close with some rabble rousing rhetoric we might all do well to consider – you probably know the sources. What if we shared a new dream where we all tried to “outdo one another in showing honor” because “compassion and tolerance are not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.”
Cindy Bargell lives outside of Silverthorne with her husband and two daughters. She is a card-carrying PTSA member, real estate and natural resources lawyer and part-time gymnastics coach. She welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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