Temple President Ken Sider was a speaker at the Oneonta NAACP’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration on January 15, 2017, at the The Red Door Church of Oneonta. His comments are below.
Martin Luther King Jr. understood discrimination, oppression, and persecution, all of which were familiar to his friend, the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a German Jew arrested by the Gestapo who escaped and later immigrated to the United States. They found one another and forged a relationship that was public, powerful, and steeped in the biblical values of justice and peace. Heschel and King were often by one another’s side as they were in the front line marching together in Selma. Heschel reported that, while marching with King, he felt that his feet were praying. Both men were scholars and in one another shared not merely a biblical language of justice and peace, and a passion for social responsibility, but more importantly – a courageous commitment to civil action. King and Heschel knew well and often called upon the Hebrew Bible’s central and revolutionary concept of ethical monotheism that teaches God is one, God is just, God is righteous, and that all of us are called to live in God’s image.
In Leviticus we are reminded that each of us is a temporary sojourner in this world. We are all vulnerable, and ultimately we are all weak. However, we know some Americans suffer more than others and this is not necessarily by chance or choice. It is through learned indifference that so many of us have acquired the habit of rationalizing and ignoring the historical and on-going injustices visited upon the most vulnerable and powerless. King’s message, inspired by scripture, calls upon all of us to live more responsible lives marked by civil action in the quest for peace and justice. Not only for ourselves, but for strangers as well.
Today, we are living in a frightening period in American history. Intimidating and threatening discourse has become common, as has hostility and hatred toward those whose citizenship is questioned. Attacks against Black Americans are out of the shadows and in the public eye. And anti-Semitism is not merely festering, but being acted upon. These attitudes are contrary to King’s teachings on morality and citizenship, and contrary to the moral compass that led all of us here today, therefore, we must not allow it go unchallenged. King’s legacy, rooted in scripture, expressed in ethical and moral terms, and demanding of a revolution of values, calls upon all of us to stand up and speak out. In doing so we can give real meaning to America’s founding democratic values which, despite claims that they made America great, haven’t yet achieved that ideal. For 300 years, we have had two Americas, and this has consequences. Values that ensure the ugliness of the past remain the ugliness of the present demand a return to King’s revolution of values.
Just as Rev. King and Rabbi Heschel locked not only arms, but hearts, we should honor King’s work and his memory by pledging, all of us in this City of the Hills, people of conscience, people of faith or no faith to also lock arms and hearts as we pledge to stand up for justice and peace. King was clear: Our outrage is inadequate; action is demanded. In 1968, at New York City’s Riverside Church, he characterized his work as a “long, bitter- but beautiful struggle.” He said though we might prefer to avoid the confrontations and challenges required for justice, that in a “crucial moment of history” we must make the courageous decision to act. We are at such a moment now and need to stand together to defend the dignity and rights of every member of our community, but especially communities of color for whom America has been willfully blind. King’s unfinished work of 1968 is our work today. We must challenge vicious white supremacy as it takes center stage in our nation, challenge poverty in our current economic system which pushes even more people down, and challenge the notion of America as an empire, rather than a civil democracy. These were difficult tasks for King, and they cost him his life. These are difficult tasks today, but as Oneonta’s Mayor Herzig stated we have each other. Through our active participation, and with Martin Luther King, Jr. as an ever-living inspiration, we must see to it through our own courage that peace and justice prevail.