To paraphrase James Taylor, let us now direct our thoughts to Martin Luther King, Jr.
For me, as a Jew, I look to Dr. King as a Jewish and Christian prophet. His message and actions were so rooted in the ideals of Judaism -- especially the concept of tikkun olam ( תיקון עולם healing, repairing, and transforming the world) -- that he must be recognized as an important figure in American Jewish life, on par with his friend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
I was reminded of the King-Heschel connection at services this past Shabbat when our Rabbi, Sid Schwartz, noted that this weekend was not only dedicated to celebrating Dr. King's birthday, but was also Rabbi Heschel's yahrtzeit, the annual memorial of his death. What's more, Dr. King was assassinated just prior to his leaving Memphis for New York, where he was to celebrate Passover with Rabbi Heschel. (Photo: Heschel, King and other religions leaders marching through Arlington National Cemetery in protest of the Vietnam War.)
The values of King and Heschel have permeated my work since graduating from law school a bit more than 20 years ago. I was something of a late-comer to their teachings, not really appreciating them until I began reading Tikkun magazine in the late 1980s, which was introduced to me through an article distributed in a law school course on jurisprudence. The article was not about King or Heschel -- I actually think it was on labor theory -- but I thought the idea of a truly left-wing Jewish magazine was intriguing. I'd never seen one. Soon thereafter, I picked up a copy of the magazine at a local bookstore and discovered that its philosophical bent was predicated on the teachings of Heschel who, in turn, had been so influenced by King. I became an avid Tikkun reader for about the next five years, at which point I felt that the magazine had taken a turn for the worse in terms of the quality of its articles and, frankly, what seemed to be the increasing domination by it's editor, Michael Lerner.
So that's how I learned of Heschel and his King connection, and that was all it took for me to adopt MLK as an American Jewish prophet and to decide that, to the degree I could, I would try to fashion my words and deeds from there on in ways he'd appreciate. I don't think I differ very much from Dr. King in terms of values. Perhaps the only area of disgreement regards the use of nonviolence. It certainly has its time and place, but violence also has its time and place. As President Obama noted recently in a speech, nonviolence would not have stopped the Nazis.
Which, of course, brings me to President Obama. For this week, we also celebrate the completion of his first year in office. I use the word "celebrate" intentionally. Yes, this has been a difficult year for the United States and the President. However, the Obama presidency must still be regarded as a Big Deal and a cause for rejoicing: Dr. King paved the way for Barack Obama's presidency. The Obama victory in November 2008 will be regarded as a watershed moment in American history. Nobody would disagree with that, and even the most cynical person and Obama opponent can appreciate the meaning of his victory in American political and sociocultural history.
But, of course, I will go even further: The Obama presidency is to be celebrated because it will be regarded as a transformative moment in American politics and policymaking. This first year has been extraordinarily productive and, in the midst of cleaning up the mess he was left by the prior administration and its corporatist minions, he has laid the groundwork for an equally productive next three years.
I believe that much of this groundwork is difficult for most people to see or comprehend because we are in a period of massive economic tumult and political shifting. We do not trust our political leaders. We are frightened and cowering.
But when we step back to take the long view, which President Obama is all about, the outline of the foundation he is building for far-reaching, progressive social change becomes clearer . His vision is quite clear: Health care, energy, and education. Three public goods. Yes, financial regulatory reform has become a major domestic priority, and there's a whole world of foreign policy challenges, but the mantra remains HC.E.E.
On health care, we all know the story and we'll have a good, new law within the next few weeks that will be the first step to transforming our health care system. On energy, bills have been introduced in Congress and we'll have to see how that comes out, but the reality is that the bills are merely window dressing for a transformation of the energy sector that is already well underway. Don't forget that the United States Government, thanks to President Obama, is a majority shareholder in General Motors, which is investing millions in clean energy new cars. This, in turn, has Ford doing the same, and I imagine that Chrylser is not far behind. European car companies are getting on board and the Japanese and Koreans are way ahead. So, it's really not just about a new cap and trade law or carbon tax -- certainly those would help and I think we'll likely get something like that over the next year or so -- but, about a different way of thinking about energy and the environment and the government's role in bringing about the transformation. On education, the Obama administration has devoted an unprecedented sum of money in the hundreds of millions to transform the way we invest in, and evaluate public education. The nation's largest teachers union, just last week, announced that it's getting on board with the administration's approach to teacher evaluation which emphasizes both qualitative and quantitative performance management measures. That is huge.
There's lots of other positive stuff happening because of President Obama, but that's really not what I want to highlight. What I want to highlight is that what President Obama is doing is putting into practice what Dr. King was talking about. Moving our recalcitrant, frightened, and cynical society toward Beloved Community.
I know our "community" may not feel very beloved now, but I'd urge us, again, to take the long view and understand the vision. There will be many problems on the road ahead, and we will not agree with everything President Obama does or says. I certainly don't. Unlike Dr. King, President Obama lives in a different environment and has a different job. He is a different man. However, like Dr. King, President Obama is a serious, trustworthy man of good character and with a vision of where he wants to lead his community. He has incorporated Dr. King's teachings
into his worldview. This is what keeps me hopeful.
And so, today, let us turn our thoughts to Martin Luther King, Jr. and how we can honor him beyond this day by contributing to Beloved Community.
(Photo of Dr. King by Addison Scurlock of Scurlock Studios, Washington, D.C.)