Thursday, May 20, 2010

Understanding without Action

"Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
- Martin Luther King Jr.
I want to revisit a specific section of the Birmingham Jail Letter written by King in 1963 in response to harsh public criticism of his chosen methods of protest from certain prominent Catholic and Jewish leaders. Its fascinating, reading about King's life in a biography written by Godfrey Hodgson, to gain a more well-rounded picture of the national hero most of us only know by parts of his "I have a dream" speech. I have come to find out that he was a man deeply afflicted with himself and with many of those around him. Yes, he was passionate about liberating the Negro through direct, non-violent, action, but as his experience and work grew, his sight became set much higher. He believed wholeheartedly in social democracy, in true justice and equality for everyone. With this in mind, let me perhaps be so bold as to ponder the excerpt above in a wider light than just the civil rights movement which had put King in jail in the first place.

As you know if you know me, I'm passionate about a lot of things, and I think that explains my fascination with King's life, passions, actions, and pursuits. Three particular but overlapping arenas with which I've become passionate about over the last few years are unchecked corporate power (and therefore, abuses); environmental degradation which harms (read: kills) people all over the globe; and the atrocities of the food industry (closely linked to both). Together, these are symptoms of a deeper sickness in our global society: people seem unwilling at best, and hostile at worst, towards truly taking action on behalf of the majority of people who lack the resources to take action themselves. Corporations enslave and 'employ' people to turn largely toxic materials into profits. Those few of us 'fortunate' enough to have the money to consume said toxic materials then pollute the Earth and thereby kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. We then apply this same, profit-driven mentality to the food we eat and then wonder why we're all overweight, sick, and killing our lands through agribusinesses.

In the Jail Letter just before the above quote, King says that the greatest obstacle for the Negro was not the Klu Klux Klanner, nor the venomous Southern politicians and 'law enforcement' officers. Instead the greatest threat to the goals of the civil rights movement was the "white moderate"; the person who understands and perhaps empathizes with the Negro but yet is unwilling to take action on his or her behalf. Unwilling to make the Negro's problem their problem with the understanding that an ill against another is an ill against oneself, or that what they do for the 'least of these', they do for God. Understanding without action is no understanding at all.

I have recently been challenged on this myself. I was talking with my brother about the lax standards of the USDA's Organic label and he said "well have you written a letter?" I had to stop and realize that no, I had not. While I believe that spreading awareness is absolutely essential to solving today's ills, what good is awareness without action? Is it simply 'understanding'? Perhaps I should take a cue from King and write that letter. Perhaps we should collectively start taking action on behalf of others. On behalf of those who need to focus on their daily survival. On behalf of the Earth, whose beautiful voice of Creation seems to be being drowned out by the global call to growth for growth's sake.

What are you passionate about? Does is help others? Will it improve the lot of the majority? Let's stop being the greatest obstacle to change and instead become that change.

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