The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
I Have a Dream
On Tuesday, the historic inauguration of President Obama was celebrated across the United States, and around the world. Whatever your affinity for his policies and style, all of us can find it remarkable that an African-American is now President of a nation which has been so deeply defined and divided by race.
Somewhere in the midst of NPR's extensive reporting of the day, I heard an interview that put that cultural and legal change in a vivid personal context. A woman -- a teacher from Virginia, if I remember correctly -- spoke about being on the National Mall in August of 1963 for the March on Washington. She faced west to the Lincoln Memorial, she said, and heard Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Last Tuesday, she was back on the Mall, this time facing east toward the Capitol, and witnessed Barack Obama taking the oath of office. In the nation's long and ongoing struggle for racial justice, the juxtaposition of two huge gatherings on the Mall reveals that profound and broad-based change is a possibility.
Her personal story across 45 years is probably shared by thousands of people who experienced both events. Through the radio broadcast of her eloquent reflections, the rest of us were allowed to appreciate an astonishing transformation in legal rights and cultural perspectives within the US. With her, we could share in the promise that public dreams can, indeed, form future realities.
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As I ponder the pace and depth of social change, I look to the future, as well as to the past. The 45 years since Dr. King's speech stirs an awareness of the 41 years that we have until 2050. By that mid-century mark, the experts on global climate change say, we must have stabilized greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.
Looking back reminds me that a span of 40-some years is both very short -- just half a lifetime -- and amazingly long. It is a period that we can comprehend in terms of personal experience, and it is broad enough to allow transformations that go far beyond what we find in our current lives. As we have seen in the realm of civil rights (for both race and gender), 40 years is a wonderfully creative time, brief enough to be compelling, and long enough to engage big visions.
I find great hope and encouragement in the ability of the United States to move through these decades of change in our sense of human community. Even our definitions of race express realities that were seldom imagined in the 1960s. The news reports which describe Mr. Obama as the country's first bi-racial President -- and his joking self-description as "a mutt" -- speak of a more nuanced perspective than the old laws where even a single drop of African blood makes him "Black." Change has worked its way into our worldviews and beliefs, as well as our laws and behaviors.
I am encouraged by the civil rights history, because we must make equally challenging changes as we face the ecological crisis of the 21st Century. The coming years will call for deep and broad changes in how we live and think. Meeting the climate challenge will call for technological transformations, of course, but efficient equipment will not be sufficient. It will also require changes in the ground rules for the global economy, new legal perspectives on the rights and obligations of individuals and corporations, and cultural shifts that go to the very heart of our self-understanding.
In his speech, President Obama marveled that "a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath." If we can make those sorts of changes toward equality and opportunity within a single lifetime, then it is possible that we can also make great changes toward sustainability and ecological community within a similar time frame.
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"I have a dream" is a powerful phrase, and the enticing details of the dream that were voiced by Dr. King kept multitudes of people on track toward fulfilling the dream. I'm sure it is important that Martin did not put the dream too far out of reach -- "I sometimes fantasize about what could be." Nor did he have a passive notion of historic change -- "I have a hunch that things will go well." The dream expressed a possible hope, and an achievable vision, that could guide and inspire a community of committed activists.
Remember that the vast crowd gathered in Washington in 1963 was there in a political mobilization for the Civil Rights Act. They were there as part of a strong movement that had already seen great victories and big changes, such as the ongoing desegregation of schools and the military, and the success of the Montgomery bus boycott. There were huge challenges to be addressed, but King's dream was a plausible outcome for the trajectory of change as they rallied for comprehensive new laws.
So, too, the efforts for climate stabilization are not wild and fanciful imagination. We can look to the global conversations on climate policy as evidence of growing awareness and commitment. We can see new inventions moving quickly into mainstream use. Economists are debating how markets can better reflect real costs, and respond to appropriate incentives, so that choices can be both environmentally and fiscally responsible. There is a strong base and an emerging trend that can guide us toward a new reality.
Today, a global society which functions in harmony with climate and ecosystems seems like a dream. This week reminds us that dreams are not fantasies, and that hard work can make dreams come true.
Through the last half-century, the cause of civil rights and inclusion was led by people of faith and conscience. Their values and hopes gave shape to practical strategies. In the coming decades, too, our success in bringing healing to the Earth community will depend on visionary values, passionate commitments, and careful organizing. May the deep roots of our faith, and the remarkable events of our recent past, fill us with strength, hope and encouragement as we work into the future in cause of ecological health.
P.S. -- 15 months ago, I wrote some related thoughts about change over a 50 year period. It is encouraging that Ward and June Cleaver, the suburbanites from "Leave it to Beaver", would find our world almost incomprehensible.
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