Reflection: Are Americans Wiser Today than Yesterday?

Abraham Joseph, OFM Features

As the country marks the Jan. 15 birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., a member of the Holy Name Province African Ancestry Committee writes about the message of the civil rights leader who was killed 50 years ago.

The title of this essay is inspired by Abraham Lincoln, who once said, “I don’t think much of a man [or woman] who is not wiser today than he [or she] was yesterday.” Many of the past leaders of the United States of America, especially the founders, were very wise human beings who tried their best to make this country “a more perfect union.” When I was asked to prepare a reflection on Martin Luther King Jr., another wise son of America, I tried to find a connection between him and other wise figures in American history.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King referred to President Lincoln when he wrote, “was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? – ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’” Both gentlemen were inspired to fight the same evil of racial polarization even though they lived 200 years apart. They both believed that God created everyone with equal dignity and right. Lincoln fought against the slavery of some Americans just because they have more melanin in their cells. And King later fought against the segregation of the same group of Americans. By their words and actions, they both showed that they were true believers and followers of the wisdom of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. And for having the courage to speak the truth, this foolish world assassinated them – Jesus of Nazareth, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Abraham Joseph, on right, is featured in an advertisement of the Institute of Religious Formation (IRF) at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. (Photo courtesy of CTU)

Nowadays, I am not sure that most Americans “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal” (Thomas Jefferson). There is a certain rhetoric being expressed in political speeches, on college/university campuses (including Catholic and Franciscan schools), in news media outlets, and through social media that depicts the population of the United States of America as made of two components. One group is the rightful heir of this land that their ancestors conquered and other comprises outsiders who want to steal the resources of the land. And being moral is now to identify with one group and then defend the privilege and survival of that group at any cost. It is pure tribalism. And unfortunately, the limits between the groups are being set again by the constructed theory of race. The same evil fought by Lincoln and King is reincarnating in the mind of a new generation. It seems that the notions of common humanity, common principles of truth and common good are completely alien concepts for this generation. The tendency now is to turn away from the sophisticated diversity of this Union and to regress into a closed uniform clan system.

The problem with segregated or oppressor/oppressed societies is that they are never sustainable. History gives us many examples from which to learn. Also, they are against our humanity because both sides end up being enslaved by hate and become unhappy. I am sure that tribalism is not part of God’s plan. First, the mystery of the Trinity reveals to us that diversity is present in the Divine Persons. Second, the Incarnation of God that the Christian just celebrated shows us that God does not want to put a wall between a divine world and a human world. Third, as baptized, we are called to mission and evangelization, which is impossible to do if we don’t embrace the diversity of nations and cultures.

For me, the idea of preserving Western Christian identity here in America or in Europe by means of segregation and exclusion is less than wise and a failure to obey Jesus Christ’s command, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15).

Since we are remembering Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, I will conclude with another quote from him: “We must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] – or we will all perish together as fools. This is the great issue facing us today. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone. We are tied together.”

— Br. Abraham, who grew up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is stationed at Holy Name of Jesus Parish in New York City where he is completing an internship as part of his Franciscan formation program. The previous  reflection, by John Heffernan, OFM, was titled “The Divine Gift.”

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic – a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at communications@hnp.org. Additional reflections by friars can be found on the Spiritual Resources page of the HNP website.

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