By Beryl Wajsman
Jan 19, 2011
Monday was a very poignant day in a very poignant week. The tragic
state of Haiti a year after the earthquake was underscored by the
news that more than ninety per cent of committed aid had not yet been
delivered to these most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters on
this small, blue globe floating in space. All Haitians got was the
return of a dictator. In Montreal, we saw attacks on Jewish
institutions, exposing once again the continuing hatred against this
most persecuted of people. Sad bookends to a week. But Monday was a
day of hope. Monday was a day when we commemorated the lives of two
men who were shields of the vulnerable and staffs of the innocent.
Men who put their lives in peril simply because they wanted to do
justice. Monday would have been the eighty-second birthday of the
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and it was also Raoul Wallenberg Day in
Canada, the sixty-sixth anniversary of his capture by Soviet troops.
Let us pause and reflect on the solemn and universal lessons of their lives.
The story of Wallenberg and King reminds us of those historical
encounters when there were champions of those who were victimized by
evil authority. These two were the antidotes to despair and
contempt. To all those of conscience who engage in the struggle for
mankind's transcendent yearning for redemptive change, this past
Monday was a date to hold sacred. It is a day when we bear witness to
human possibility. That even in the midst of mankind's debased
desertion of any of its noble aspirations whether under the heel of
the Nazi beasts or in the jaws of Bull Connor's dogs human courage
and compassion can rally us to the inevitable triumph of justice.
The contrasts of their lives and today's headlines are telling, and
their lessons may be our last best hope for our own humanity.
Wallenberg and King personified the prophecy that the day will come
when "Justice shall roll down like waters and righteousness as a
mighty stream." Without fidelity to that goal, we will be left with
little more than a future of Ezekiel's vision of a valley of dry
bones, forever parched, making this world brittle and arid and
stench-filled. Their examples challenge us.
Wallenberg and King taught us that as much as we may live in an era
characterized by justice compromised by timidity, honor cheapened
through expediency and promise mortgaged to avarice, we all have a
responsibility to act and turn the tide. And in fact they proved that
tides can be turned.
Their lives were litmus tests of mankind's civility that we still use
today. They taught that it is not how we treat those who are many, or
agreeable, or privileged, or quiescent, that is important, but rather
how we treat those who are few, and different, and alienated, and
vulnerable. That it is the latter test that speaks to the civility of
a society. Sadly, much of the world still fails that test. But what
Wallenberg and King taught were that we still have an obligation to
try and make it better.
We know that the possibilities of greatness and generosity are
constantly compromised by an ungracious modernity and a suffocating
self-absorption filled with false pieties as excuses for inaction.
Little resolve abounds to remedy the malignancies of hate, jealousy
and greed with the compass of compassionate conscience and the
courage of character to protect right from wrong. Frivolous
squabblings that are nothing more than promotions of petty
self-interests overwhelm what King called the "fierce urgency of now"
the fierce urgency to bring to an end the spectacular and frequent
failures of man. But the message of the lives of these heroes is that
we need to try. Not just for the sake of the suffering, but for our own selves.
For if we don't at least try and gentle the condition try and
rectify the failures - then in the dead of night we will forever be
haunted by those failures as thin, humid rivulets of sweat crawl
over us like vermin.We will be haunted by the mounds of ashes that
once were 1.5 million smiling children playing in the streets of
"civilized" Europe. Haunted by the bloated bodies floating in the
Yangtze River of Mao's China. Haunted by the corpses frozen in the
wastes of Stalin's Gulag. Haunted by the betrayals of the free
peoples of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Haunted by the deaths of
Freedom Riders in the American South. Haunted by the killing fields
of Vietnam and Cambodia. Haunted by the bodies rotting in the jungles
of Rwanda and in the fetid marshes of the Balkans.
As we face today's dire challenges, we must all become Wallenbergs
and Kings ready to assume individual responsibility, each drawing
strength from the sure knowledge that one person can make a
difference. We have a responsibility to follow Gandhi's counsel and
act quickly to arrest "the evil that staggers drunkenly from wrong to
wrong in order to preserve its own immortality."
For today, as before, the consequence of failure will be dire. Dire
to the billions living in grinding poverty in a world of abundance.
Dire to the devastated of Darfur, whose suffering many governments
still refuse to call genocide. Dire to the enslaved tens of millions
in Asia living under oppressive regimes providing cheap labor for
Faustian alliances of state and industrial interests. Dire to the
tens of millions dying of AIDS and famine in Africa watched by an
apathetic and avaricious world that still cares less about the
content of a man's character than about the color of his skin. Dire
to the victims in Haiti.
For all our demonstrations and petitions, we have been ambivalent and
apathetic toward the insolence and inaction of authority. We have
perpetuated sins of silence with voices too often mute when
confronted with the evils that men do.
We seem to react when it costs us nothing in terms of our personal
bottom lines. We readily accept whatever manipulated images and
opinions flood us from television and magazines as reality. We
eagerly digest political sound bites as quickly as any fast food. Our
surrender has demonstrated nothing less than an abandonment of the
possibilities of our own capacities.
Wallenberg and King teach us to refuse to surrender to such a low
limitation of narrow circumstance. Their testaments are living ones
to this day. Testaments to a different world where people see wrongs
and try to right them; see suffering and try to heal it, see
injustice and try to stop it. A world that rejects the cowardice of
the fey and feckless that would have us acquiesce in our own
self-abnegation. A world where people dare to care. A world that
remembers the primacy of justice.
If we fail their memory and example then the day will come when false
prophets will shout "Peace! Peace!", and there there will be none
left to shout back truth to power that, "There is no peace!" And then
we will have nothing more to comfort us as we struggle with our own
redemption than a poignant plea for heaven to have mercy.