This month, we as a nation mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which granted freedom to those held in slavery in the areas controlled by the Confederacy. This weekend, we celebrate the life of a remarkable man, Martin Luther King Jr., and the movement for freedom and justice which was his life’s work. Later this year, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s most famous speech.
Clinton Lee Scott writes, "Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the direction of their vision. It is easier to glorify heroes than to give weight to their examples. To worship the wise is much easier than to profit by their wisdom."
With all this history, with all the great strides taken by courageous people like Dr. King, freedom and justice are still not entirely secured in our nation. Scholarly studies continue to show what many Americans know from experience: that people are treated differently in school, by the criminal justice system, by colleagues and bosses based on things like skin color, ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation, and class background. Forty-five years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while working on an anti-poverty campaign, the gap between the wealthy and the poor in the United States is as high as it has been in decades, and it is growing.
In my tradition of Unitarian Universalism, we seek "to affirm and promote the inherent worth of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;" and "the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all."
Of course, ours is not the only religious tradition that contains this exhortation to work for justice, equity, compassion, and peace. Many traditions ask this of their followers, that we show to one another compassion and not prejudice, justice and not oppression, and that we not rest until this is a reality for all.
This weekend, let us take the time to remember an American prophet and hero, one who lived, worked, and died for the cause of freedom and justice. Let us honor his memory and the memory of the thousands of others who have shown great courage in working for an America that is truly the Land of the Free.
But let us not simply pay homage to these prophets of our national past. Let us also heed the direction of their vision. Let us not simply glorify our heroes of justice, let us also give weight to their examples. Let us not worship the wise who have gone before us without profiting from their wisdom. Let us recommit to follow in the ways of justice, equity, compassion, and peace as guided by our own religious traditions and the stirrings of our own hearts and consciences. Let us recommit to create the nation of justice and freedom, and the world of peace and liberty for which we long.
The Rev. Erica Baron is pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bennington.