On November 4, voters in the US made a momentous choice, not only by taking another step towards racial equality, but also by demanding new ways of relating to other countries, to injustice, to the environment, and to truth itself. As of today, that is only one step; nothing has changed except the direction we are pointed.
Where the path leads next depends even more on the rest of us than it does on President-Elect Obama. The great challenges of globalization, racism, poverty, and violence are unaffected by a single election. Yet, there is a risk that we can fall asleep, lose sight of those challenges, and begin to think only of narrow issues, such as many that surfaced in the campaign.
We have the opportunity now to respond to the challenges posed 43 years ago in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s excellent speech, Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution. In his talk, he relates the story of “Rip Van Winkle,” who slept 20 years. But he reminds us that when Rip went up to the mountain, the sign on the local inn had a picture of King George III of England. Twenty years later, the sign had a picture of George Washington. Rip had not only slept 20 years; he had slept through a revolution. As King says, “Rip Van Winkle knew nothing about it; he was asleep.”
King saw that we are experiencing a scientific and technological revolution, one that challenges us to remain awake, and to develop a world perspective. It’s more imperative than ever to eradicate racial injustice and rid the world of poverty, and to find an alternative to war and bloodshed. Long before talk of flat worlds, King saw that our destinies were intertwined:
All I’m saying is simply this: that all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality…And by believing this, by living out this fact, we will be able to remain awake through a great revolution.
Remaining awake means looking beyond government as usual and recognizing that children in Haiti are in our “garment of destiny,” as much a part of our world as the person next door. It means knowing that justice is an ongoing project that needs to be defended wherever we hear of abuses of human rights, not seeking ways to justify them. It means finding an end to wars, not simply moving from one venue to another.
Can we do any better now at addressing King’s great challenges?
King, Jr, Martin Luther (1965, June). Remaining awake through a great revolution. Commencement address for Oberlin College, Oberlin Ohio.