Inter-faith Courage on Martin Luther King Jr’s 84th Birthday

In Washington D.C. today, some will observe Martin Luther King’s Birthday by holding a “Pray-in for the Climate.”

It’s a fitting commemoration, because climate change is our most pressing moral challenge, just as racial inequality was for Dr. King.

And, like him, we are called to choose hope over despair and action over paralysis. Our children’s future depends on our courage today. Courage to demand principled leadership from our politicians. And courage to change our own lives.

Nearly 50 years ago in Birmingham, Alabama, King was jailed for taking part in a non-violent protest against segregation. White church leaders were harshly and openly critical.

Dr. King responded with clarity and courage. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

King’s appeal to a common humanity and his compelling image of a “single garment of destiny” apply with equal urgency to the challenge of climate change, and inequality — of wealth, of power, and still, very often, of race — remains at the heart of this challenge.

Our reckless use of fossil fuels overloads the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, disrupting the climate. It’s already causing catastrophic storms and droughts that kill tens of millions a year.

The devastation of Hurricane Sandy is still being felt in one of the richest, most powerful cities on Earth, just as last summer’s Midwest drought is driving up food prices this winter. Imagine how much more devastating such severe weather events are in Haiti or in sub-Saharan Africa.

Those suffering the most are the poor. They didn’t create the problem. They don’t take part in the profit.

In effect, they are giving up their security, their lands, in many cases their lives, so that others can become even richer.

To me, this sounds like slavery by another name.

Slavery represents an immoral economic system that harms many and profits few. Despoiling our common atmosphere with carbon dioxide is equally an immoral economic system that harms many and profits few.

Dr. King referred to the “manacles” of racial segregation and the “chains” of discrimination.  I make bold to suggest that he might respond in similar fashion today to the unequal burden of climate change borne by the poor.

This is a moment of choice. We must choose between a more just economic system, or carry on with morally bankrupt and unsustainable economies that enslave the poor and ultimately threaten human life everywhere.

Those whose wealth is tied to the current unjust system will resist fiercely and predict ruin — just as they did when confronted by challenges to slavery and discrimination. But the reality is that abolishing slavery and ending segregation led to periods of economic resurgence.

The matter is urgent. Justice could not come soon enough for slaves and their descendants, and the Earth’s life support system has a fast-approaching limit.

Those who gather in Washington today invite us to find the courage necessary for the urgency of this moment. A motley crew of young people, survivors of Hurricane Sandy, religious leaders and others will make a choice to take part. Let’s accept the invitation to be with them in spirit and in action, in our inescapable network of mutuality. How deep is our courage?

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