The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
We Have Defaulted
It has been a month since Pope Francis came to the US. As the news cycles roll past, the images and messages from the pontiff that were vivid in September have faded.
But one reference in one speech has nagged at me, and forced me to do some homework. When he spoke at the White House, Francis -- talking about climate change -- referred to "a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King".
The slightly modified quotation from MLK was neither random nor incidental. It is worth unpacking 19 words from the Pope.
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The Pope's speech at the White House was not long. The text provided by ABC News shows only six paragraphs. His few words were chosen very carefully. And, as I mentioned a month ago, those words were unusually specific and direct for such a diplomatic setting.
Two paragraphs out of the six dealt with climate change, and the first of those framed the issue in terms of intergenerational and global justice.
Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. ... Such change demands on our part a serious and responsible recognition not only of the kind of world we may be leaving to our children, but also to the millions of people living under a system which has overlooked them.
And that's where he put the brief, 19 word, reference to King: "we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it."
Do you recognize those words? They echo the beginning of what is known as the "I Have a Dream" speech delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in August, 1963, during the March on Washington -- but they are not an exact quote.
The dream section of King's famous speech -- "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" -- is marvelous and stirring oratory, especially because it was unscripted. But I've long felt a bit of regret that, in our telling of that day, his ringing words of hope so thoroughly overshadowed the cutting words of responsibility that had been meticulously composed to open the speech.
Dr. King looked back 100 years to President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, "a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice." But, he proclaimed, "one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. ... And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition."
The next two paragraphs deserve to be quoted in full.
In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the 'unalienable Rights' of 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.' It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'
What a marvelously vivid image, meaningful to all folk, whether or not they have legal training or deep historical knowledge. "The check has bounced" speaks powerfully of an obligation that must be honored. There is no hint of pleading for charity or special treatment. This is a demand for justice that is legitimate and overdue.
In 19 words, Francis echoed King and called forth the heart of the US civil rights movement. He pointed back to our nation's despicable history of injustice, exclusion, violence and racism. He honored those who worked peaceably to obtain their long-denied rights. 52 years of history shows that their struggle was just and righteous.
The Pope -- and his very competent speechwriters -- selected a powerful reference from US history. But the words were changed. King spoke on behalf of those who had been denied their due. But Francis spoke from the other side, the side of the powerful. "We have defaulted", he said, "and now is the time to honor it."
Francis turned King's message around. We have defaulted. We have denied what is rightfully due to future generations, and to "people living under a system which has overlooked them." We are the ones who have denied their rights. Now is the time for us to honor our responsibilities. This is a confessional call to action. The next paragraph spells out what is needed:
I would like all men and women of good will in this great nation to support the efforts of the international community to protect the vulnerable in our world and to stimulate integral and inclusive models of development, so that our brothers and sisters everywhere may know the blessings of peace and prosperity which God wills for all his children.
The Pope's "I would like" is not a disempowered request for an act of charity, or of exceptional good will, please and thank you. Rather, in the assertive spirit of King, he is saying, "I call on this nation to honor its responsibilities to those who are suffering and excluded. I call on you -- and all the powerful -- to honor the claims that are being made upon you. I call on you to tap into your wealth and privilege to bring justice to those who bear the brunt of our pollution, now and in the future."
Francis gives us a foretaste of what is to come at this winter's climate talks in Paris. Standing on the White House lawn, he gave voice to the legitimate claims of those who will have a hard time being heard in Paris -- those who will not be seen on TV screens in the US.
When the UN delegates meet in December, Francis tells us, those from poor nations come carrying a promissory note for climate justice. That note is past due. It is our responsibility to tap into the bank of justice and do what is right.
Tucked into a short speech are 19 words of resonant meaning which gracefully, but clearly, call us to account. A reference to our own history clarifies current issues, defines responsibility, and highlights both the necessity and the possibility of change.
Those words from a month ago are a brilliant expression of truth spoken to power that stand in the best heritage of the prophetic tradition. They are words that should not fade from our memory or our conscience.
In the month leading up to Paris, and in the weeks of those negotiations, I pray that the US delegation -- and those of the other rich and polluting nations -- will remember Francis' words of truth. "We have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it."
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