Nearly 49 years after the march on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr.'s declaration "I have a dream" still echoes in our society. His vision of a national community based on equality and acceptance is a goal that guides us and, at times, eludes us.
In late 1993, a group of clergy in Topeka, Kansas had been meeting to plan an interreligious worship event to honor the memory and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As we tried to come up with a title for our service, one of my clergy colleagues suggested that we needed to think of Dr.King's dream in terms of a question. That question was "Whose Dream is it?" Pastor John DeVeaux felt that, if we tried to define the dream with our title, it would make Dr. King's vision of equality too narrow. He believed that people in our community related to Dr. King's dream on their own terms, based on their own experience. That reality had the potential to bring more and more people of diverse backgrounds together to tell their own stories or to relate their own experiences to a journey that moved from oppression towards freedom.
Last night, I was part of a local program that did just that. Cafe, communities in action and faith, facilitated a discussion on race, diversity and multiculturalism. At one point, we were divided into groups of three to talk about experiences when we were the target of discrimination and also a time when we were not a target and how we dealt with those who did face exclusion or oppression. When the group got back together, I commented that when we share stories, we begin to empathize with each other based on our common experiences, thus creating the possibility of camaraderie and a desire to make changes to prevent any type of exclusion and discrimination.
The story of the Exodus that begins with this Shabbat’s Torah reading is a tale of oppression that many people share. In his book America's Prophet, Bruce Feiler chronicled the many ways that groups in American history have identified within Moses as a model leader and adopted the Exodus experience as their own. The pilgrims, the citizens of the newly created United States of America, all those involved in the struggle against slavery in the 1800s and participants in the 20th Century civil rights movement viewed themselves as the Israelites leaving Egypt for a promised land. In a way, Martin Luther King's dream began with the episode of the burning bush, when Moses gained a glimpse of the possibility of his people's liberation.
Dr. King emphasized in his work the importance of not hating one's oppressor, because hatred can be like a consuming fire for the one who hates. King believed that love of others should be extended to all people. Moses's encounter with the divine demonstrated how escaping oppression could be like kindling a fire that would not consume anyone, one that would burn brightly and offer warmth and hope for the future.
Today, we may still ask, "whose dream is it? - who needs to hold on to hope that they will be able to gain or maintain equality in their own neighborhood or nation?
Recent events in Israel have shown how women's rights in the secular sectors of society are safe, but that the intersection of the Haredi, modern orthodox and secular communities has become a breeding ground for violent and hateful tactics of a small group of Haredim who have no tolerance for people not like them. Demonstrations in Beit Shemesh that drew from the entire country, an all-female flash mob dance to a song by the group Queen, and declarations from government officials reiterating the rule of law, not hatred, have stated loud and clear how people should treat one another in public places in Israel. Bullying, spitting, vandalizing Jewish schools or setting fire to Muslim houses of worship, a tactic of the “Price tag” group, are not sanctioned by the breadth of Jewish tradition. Prejudice against Ethiopian Jews because of their skin color has no place in a state that espouses Jewish teachings at its foundation. I was reminded last night at the Cafe program that diverse populations in a society that have no contact with each other cannot reach a point where they can begin to understand their respective triumphs and trials. They can only begin to come together when they are ready and willing to talk and and to listen. That includes residents of many communities between the Mediterranean sea and Jordan river – some of whom are engaging in dialogue on a regular basis - and the Israeli and Palestinian leaders meeting in Amman to see if they can, finally inch toward peace.
And that applies to us in this community as well. Our own family stories of immigration from even 100 years ago may relate to the diverse groups in New Mexico more than we know, enough that we can offer wisdom and an open hand instead of a closed mind or heart. Our own moments of financial distress that we have resolved can be a basis for reaching out to those facing foreclosure due to nothing they did, other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Any moment in our lives when we experienced an unfortunate glimpse of anti-Semitism can give us insight into what it feels like to be discriminated against based on race, religion, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or socioeconomic status. Most of all, we have this week's Torah reading and its eventual conclusion that we can contribute to our neighbors - illustrated so well on the ark behind me- that the hope of liberation based in a divine vision of equality and free of hatred is like a burning bush that is, wonder of wonders, not consumed.
One of the songs about the Exodus, Man Come Into Egypt - I am saving that one for Passover - declares about Moses that "in his heart there burned a flame." The flame and the dream needs to come from inside each of us, but it needs to find and join with the flame and the dream of our fellow community members, so that they become one. Whose dream is it? It is our dream, and as we try to make that dream real, may we speak with words that are kind but firm and act with determination to make God's oneness our own.