Subverting the Legacy of MLK?

01-20-2013Fr. John LettersFr. John

Dear Friends,

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A few years back on a trip to London I had the amusement of attending a production of Monty Python's "Spamalot". The play, a rip-off of "Camelot" lampoons all things about Broadway musicals and in typical Monty Python fashion pokes fun at just about everything including religion. So as expected here were jokes about Jews and Christians, which elicited plenty of laughs. But when a joke about Hindu's involving a cow showed up there was an audible gasp of discomfort from the audience almost as if to say, " can you believe they just said that?" Even with humor we tend to apply different standards for different groups which is sad as humor can be a great equalizer. Certain groups, according to the current norms of satire and humor are just off limits. Jews, Christians, and Mormons however are fair game but not so much with Hindus, Muslims, Buddhist monks or those who believe in global warming.

This same double standard seemed to be the case recently when female members of the US Congressional Black Caucus strongly chided Senator McCain for his criticism of UN Ambassador Susan Rice over the Benghazi killings. They point blankly accused Sen. McCain of sexism and racism. All of which is rather absurd. But the message the Caucus was sending was not so absurd: racism or sexism or both motivate criticism of a black woman in a position of power. For some reason then blacks who hold power or women who hold power can't be subject to the same level of accountability as others.

While I realize the members of the Caucus were attempting to give Ambassador Rice some political cover and make her opponents look bad, still how far from the ideal that Rev. Martin Luther King asked us to embrace had they stooped? Why is it so often that when an attempt is made to make a judgment based on the content of character, in other words to hold everyone to the same standard, accusations fly that criticisms are only motivated because of race or gender or Islamophobia or homophobia? Senator McCain was not criticizing the Ambassador because she was black or a woman but because of her politics.

The same tends to happen in discussions about marriage. If you hold the reasonable position that marriage is between one man and one woman then you likely will be told that you are hurting same-sex attracted people. The suggestion of course is that gay people can't handle a rational discussion about the nature and purpose of marriage without being offended.

All this is simply contemptuous. Holding that somehow black women in power can't handle criticism and must be treated differently or that gays only see life through the lens of their sexual urges takes us back to exactly where Dr. King tried to get to beyond: treating others based on a stereotype rather than the content of their character.

Being made skittish of proffering legitimate criticism for fear of being labeled negatively brings us right back to a world where we judge people based on anything but the content of their character.

There is no doubt plenty of racism, bigotry and prejudice that percolate through our society. But seeing racism or sexism where there is none or using it in order to silence critics does a disservice to the legacy of Dr. King. Having a character whose content is virtuous is perhaps the surest way of disarming prejudices of any kind.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Love, Fr. John B.

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