History is our constant teacher, filled with critical lessons for us to internalize from the choices of our predecessors. History lets us see the steps we took forward into the “unknown future”, or if we are not thoughtful, the struggles that continue from the lessons we have not internalized.
Fifty years ago, in 1968 our country was involved in questionable military activities, with political leadership under close scrutiny, and the press was struggling to find its voice as a new media was being used to tell the story of world events. We were a nation filled with questions about economic striation, racial injustice, and gender inequality. It was a time of growing social activism, political upheaval, and violent change.
In the midst of this caldron of unrest, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood at his pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Christmas Eve, and shared with his congregation
his observations about what it would take for us as a country to move toward nothing less than the Christmas blessing of peace on earth, leaning into these epic challenges of history, Dr. King shared, “We must develop a world perspective, a vision for the entire planet.” “Yes,” he said, “as nations and individuals, we are interdependent.” Dr. King went on to state, “It really boils down to this: all life is interrelated.”
Sound familiar? In our School’s Philosophy, George and Annemarie Roeper wrote:
“All parts of the globe depend on each other economically, culturally, and emotionally. All this, if followed through logically, translates into the compelling need for cooperative action.
Yet most of our skills and beliefs are based on confrontation and competition. Most people function as though there were a hierarchy of human rights and human life-structures.”
The Roepers went on to write, “A philosophy which tries to develop the skills of cooperation and looks at this as the ultimate moral and realistic goal may be the only true approach that might keep the world from destruction.”
This spirit of cooperation, this understanding of the need to work in collaboration, this commitment to a moral imperative that recognizes our interrelated nature, is at the core of our School’s humanistic foundation. Both the Roepers and Dr. King understood that we can only construct a “more perfect union” by acknowledging the relational nature of all human beings. Your success, is my success; your pain is my pain.
As a recent New York Times article reminded us, in the last years of Dr. King’s life, his holistic vision led him to emphasize the connections between racism, militarism and economic injustice, and to see continuities across social movements. In a 1966 telegram
to the labor leader Cesar Chavez, he wrote, “our separate struggles are really one.”
Three weeks after his Christmas sermon, Dr. King visited the singer Joan Baez in jail, following her arrest after a sit-in at a draft induction center. Stopping to speak with Vietnam War protesters gathered outside, he told them, referring to civil rights and antiwar activism, “I see these two struggles as one struggle.”
For Dr. King, the civil rights movement was part of a larger “revolution of values” that was, “forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws.” He told his congregants, “that racism, militarism and excessive materialism are “inseparable triplets.” As he put it, what we need is nothing less than “a restructuring of the very architecture of American society.”
Dr. King reminded his congregation that, “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”
Dr. King had been thinking about the environment for years before he addressed it in his sermon. Starting in the 1950s, Dr. King expressed concern for “the survival of the world,” and linked environmental and civil rights issues: “It is very nice to drink milk at an unsegregated lunch counter — but not when there’s strontium 90 in it.”
We come together tonight fifty years after his violent death, filled with different forms of media stories defining our failure as a people to understand our interconnectedness. White supremacists, and neo-Nazis, emboldened in these times, preach an old worn hatred that seeks to splinter our community. Corporate capitalism, with its widening gulf between the ultra-rich and the millions of people living in poverty, strains our social fabric. Decency and moral guidance in the highest level of political leadership leave us feeling wanting for unity, healing, and understanding.
“As we continue to hope for peace on earth, let us know that in the process we have a cosmic companionship. This is our faith,” Dr. King told his church on that Christmas Eve.
That is what tonight is about – it is a reminder of our cosmic companionship, our interconnectedness to all the peoples of the world. That above all else, we have the responsibility to continue to seek ways to nurture, preserve, and build connection.
Interdependence is not an idealized state that we are aspiring to reach. Whether we choose to find comfort or worry in this label, we are interdependent. The question we must ask is what impact do we want to have on each other?
Tonight, we have come together with good intention and a profound sense of hope to find inspiration in Dr. King’s ideas and teachings. Tomorrow, the responsibility for contributing to a just community will rest with each of us. As we march into the unknown future, let us remember that we are interdependent.