Pursuing the Dream

The end of August brought differing images of American democracy. President Obama called on Congress to debate the use of military force against Syria, a consultation Congress had demanded but did not really want to face. They were unwilling to cut short their month-long recess to decide on an act of war. It was not an inspiring moment. (See my post “Washington and War” on America’s blog In All Things, 9/2.) On Aug. 28, a few days earlier, the anniversary of the March on Washington in 1963 recalled another crucial moment when people and politics came together to confront a different question: how to overcome our nation’s original sin of racism.

One advance in the commemorations was the powerful voices of women, which were missing in 1963. The starkest change was our African-American president speaking eloquently of the “great unfinished business” of poverty and inequality. For African-American marchers 50 years ago, the prospect of a black president named Barack Hussein Obama was as improbable as that of a Jesuit pope from Argentina named Francis would have been for Catholics in 1963.

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Another difference was diminished religious language and leadership. The March in 1963 was as much pilgrimage as rally. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon appealed to America’s soul and conscience. Seven of 15 speakers were leaders of religious groups working to make the march a success and the Civil Rights Act possible. I fear we may be losing this capacity to bring religious vision and moral principles to fundamental national choices. We may be trading a respectful pluralism for a dominant secularism, which insists faith is private and divisive. Powerful interests, narrow agendas and left- and right-wing individualism (“my choice, my rights”) dominate politics. Where will we find the ethical principles, vocabulary and values to make sacrifices for the common good, the next generation or the “least of these”? Would Dr. King’s call be too biblical, Christian and exclusive today?

Washington this September is not filled with powerful images but with confusion over responses to war crimes in Syria and human disaster in Egypt. Immigration reform may be slipping into 2014 or oblivion, as the House will not consider legislation approved by the Senate because even though it would likely pass, it would do so without the votes of most Republicans. Calls to shut down government over “Obamacare” mask the huge challenge of implementing the complex law Congress passed. The employer mandate, for example, has been waived for a year, but the Health and Human Services mandate will be enforced. Washington turns to 2016. Will Hillary run? Who leads Republicans: the warrior Ted Cruz or the pragmatist Chris Christie?

Martin Luther King’s unfinished agenda languishes. The Voting Rights Act needs repair after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision. Both parties need to confront the silence and stalemate on growing poverty, lack of decent work and wages and related erosion of family life. The progressive agenda seems to begin with same-sex marriage and resistance to any restraints on abortion. Where is the passion for economic and social justice of Dr. King? The right rejects a path to citizenship for immigrants and insists that cutting food stamps and taxes are roads to opportunity. Where is compassionate conservatism?

Where are religious leaders? In fairness, these marches were different. Al Sharpton is not Dr. King. The 1963 March did not feature abortion and same-sex marriage. Catholic leaders are struggling to be heard as they persistently work for human life and dignity, economic justice and immigration reform, religious freedom and peace. Parishes, charities, schools and individual Catholics are pursuing the dream every day. But we are too often distracted by partisan, ideological and ecclesiastical disputes. We need to renew the common commitment to justice that brought so many to march 50 years ago. We do not lack biblical mandates or Catholic principles but urgency and passion.

Pope Francis’ new leadership and example offer a way forward. He calls us to get out of ourselves and our ecclesial corners and into “the streets.” Pope Francis also has a dream, “a church which is poor and for the poor.” If we truly pursue Francis’ dream, it will help realize Dr. King’s dream as well.

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Alex Mikulich
5 years 1 month ago
Thank you for an excellent essay John! Catholics and the U.S. Catholic Church have yet to take up Dr King's dream for racial justice with a depth of passion equal to the work before us. As we become a more affluent Church that too often has abandoned African American urban communities as we build new churches in relatively well-off communities, what happens to the Gospel call to join love with the work of racial justice? The prophetic calls from people like Bryan Massingale have yet to be taken seriously within parishes and dioceses over this land!
Bruce Snowden
5 years 1 month ago
If we’re going to pursue the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King and Pope Francis, we must do what St. Augustine counseled, “We must FEEL with the Church.” In other words we must have the compassionate heart of Jesus who, among other teachings said, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavily burdened and I will refresh you.” Not only spiritually, but also by eradicating turbulent ethnicity, social and educational injustices, the whole nine yards, where inhumanity so to speak, battles one another for imagined supremacy, blind to the Creator’s implanted birthright of intrinsic human equality. Who is this “I” of which Jesus speaks? The Body of Christ, the Church, of course, YOU and ME! He certainly didn’t have at heart just bricks and mortar, the church at the corner, probably with an attached school as necessary as they are. His focus instead was on the universal church of assembled humanity, daily walking down the streets of life with sacrifices of the Cross offered on their bruised and bleeding hearts, call those hearts “altars,” longing to hear words of liberation, “Free at last! Thank God we are free at last!” Gone are the pleasantries of sisters and brothers rushing by, with a “God bless you! Be well clad! Be well fed!” as they go their merry way, minimally helpful if at all. "Faith without works is dead!" True, some do reach helpfully not only into their “abundance” but into their very “substance” doing as the Gospel’s widow who gave “all she had to live on.” This according to Blessed (soon to be Saint) John Paul II, speaking at Yankee Stadium on one of his Apostolic trips. Yes, if we’re going to “think” church we have to first “feel” church and like Jesus go where the people are, at the seashore, on a hillside, in the streets, especially the "slums" not preferentially where the well-to-do gather counting their riches, although they too need to feel the impact of Jesus’ salvific mission, but to soup kitchens where the poor of God assemble. We must do as Pope Francis has done repeatedly, dirty our hands by indiscriminately washing, even kissing feet in humble service. How? Perhaps by paying that tuition even at the cost of some personal “pains of love” at that school on the corner, where the sidewalk church struggles to comply with a pastoral edict, “Pay your child’s tuition or regretfully he/she will be removed from the school!” This happens! Folks, this is hard to do, following Jesus, really following Jesus is hard to do. Christianity is no cream puff religion! Many have done it and are still doing it for Jesus and subliminally imitating the Gospel insights of Dr. King and Pope Francis. We have to take the Gospel’s “bite” to heart, allow it to bite our hearts showing its “teeth” so to speak by going from life to the Gospel and from the Gospel back to life. In other words dear friends, for Christ’s sake, let’s get real! As JP II says quoted by Jesuit priest James Kubicki in his book, "A Heart on Fire," "By our concern for those in need we will be recognized as true followers of Christ."
KEVIN HURLEY
5 years 1 month ago
"A church which is poor and for the poor"? I LOVE THAT IDEA! But reality rears its fugly head. Wealth is necessary - along with the attendant dip into the immorality of finances. Economics itself is not bad - it's how cultures stated and continue to thrive. But the reduction of economics to finances has left the world bereft of moral understanding. As Catholics, "the least of us" should be "the greatest." The greatest what? Concern. Focus. Compassion. TRUE Understanding. ("walk a mile in a norther's shoes before passing judgement") This morality IS CATHOLICISM'S EARTHLY BEALTY. "Pursuing the Dream" should be the enactment of this beauty.

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