It was a long time ago that Martin Luther King spoke up and now there are many fewer alive who had heard his words in crowded halls and full sanctuaries when they were first delivered. The distance of time between a student at St. Lawrence today and Dr. King’s lifetime is the equivalent number of years between my own college days and the election of Calvin Coolidge. And that is harder for me to concede than it is for you to measure.
There is a natural tendency to detach oneself from a remote past, almost with a clinical formality, remain incapable of fully entering into its moment. So, I can appreciate the effort in historical imagination that it takes for students, and also some faculty and staff members who are in the early morning of their careers, to trust the validation that an earlier, older generation has given to the significance of a day and a name joined in memory.
I personally never saw, met, or heard Martin Luther King. I have known several people who knew him well and I took graduate courses from professors who had also once had him as a student. I am under no disillusionment or disappointment for not having been a closer eye-witness to his work, even though I have more than adequate command of all the biographical details. I doubt that any hypothetical relationship with him, even a passing one, would have been particularly affirming or reassuring. Rather, he named difficult issues and logical inconsistencies in our world and private thoughts. He provoked and chafed his supporters, and not only his detractors.
The late Peter Gomes who taught and preached at Harvard University for over forty years once told me that he, too, had never met Martin Luther King, though he got to know his father, Daddy King, quite well after Martin’s death. Professor Gomes later wrote that had he known the younger, more famous King, “I think he would have made me uncomfortable, for moral power, spiritual rigor, intellectual acuteness, and physical courage are all qualities we admire in the abstract, but when we confront them face-to-face, especially if we doubt our own supply of them—well, it is difficult to be anything but awkward.”
When I asked Shaun Whitehead about the nature of today’s observance, she got right to the point of her planning; that there can be no celebration without challenge, no mountaintop without a view of struggle in the valley below. In American society, including representative American campuses this year, there is a growing realization that, in Shaun’s advice to me, “we must face the uncomfortable; we must name it; we must start the difficult conversations.” Shaun recites what we already know, “it’s hard to talk about race, religion, and the rise of physical, mental and emotional violence, but too much is on the line if we ignore the challenging conversations and shut folks down.”
I would like to offer a few guiding principles for you to consider when you are feeling uncomfortable in the presence of ideas and emotions that may be at odds with your own conceptual framework about the St. Lawrence experience—in friendships, classrooms, small groups, campus organizations, and in knowing “the other” people better in this community who are having a different kind of experience from yours, maybe one that will enrich your life, if you only knew its potential to do so.
In the final year of his life, Dr. King had widened the scope of his vision about rights and citizenship to talk about the “immoral enormity” of the Vietnam War and economic injustice that transcended white and black people. He made more people very uncomfortable than ever before. In several instances, he began his remarks with a simple sentence: “there comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
Maybe that time is with us again, because learning to speak up respectfully, as a transaction of listening to another while reasonably expecting to be heard also, has a renewed immediacy. Maybe it has always seemed so, but the shouting, smack-downing, and polarizing rhetoric in public debate has stretched the reserves of patience in most of us. We stand before a dichotomy—either turn up our own volume, often in anger, or just go away. I understand why for some silence is attractive either as easy resignation or as safe refuge in the face of increasing impolite and aggressive forms of speech, including the unchecked impulses of Twitter.
And yet, opting for silence as a dialogue default risks betraying our conscience, our friendships, and most pointedly, the occasion for making new friends who are different from our familiar, comfortable self-identity. There are many ways to keep silence and to creep quietly into a circle of betrayal that we would otherwise repute or deny as having compromised us. The silences we keep with self-pleasing ease include the convenience of ambiguity, the privilege of choices, the fear of being ignored, the embarrassment of risking offense, and the indifference of abdication, captured in the three words, “not my problem.”
There is a short sentence from an ancient prophetic source that will open up a whole perspective to you when facing the impasse of what to say or do when silence seems the least bad means of avoiding the uncomfortable. If you follow the lead of the person who wrote this prescription, you may find something in your own circumstances to match it and be able to break a tempting silence. It is an idea that anchored Dr. King like no other text: “Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another…” (Malachi 3:16).
Never to speak out or never to speak of a difficult topic with another person is, frankly, a failure of a liberal arts education. I recognize that an appropriate vocabulary for productive, uncomfortable discussion is essential, but not simple; it is most likely that students do not have a workable set of terms fitting the challenge when they arrive in their first year. But as the old sentence suggests, there is a way to get past your fear to speak with another, particularly if you remember that fear is not a perfect translation of an older word that means more than being afraid or inhibited; it also means that there is implicit respect and admiration, even awakening and awe, in coming together on shared grounds.
When Dr. King said “silence is betrayal,” he swept across the vast plains of human history and emphasized, “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words Too Late.” I have few regrets about my St. Lawrence experience as a young man, for it was a time of enchantment and magic. But I confess my embarrassment now in not being better friends to students of color and international students on campus when they were feeling more alone than I could ever imagine. My recollected shame is compounded by also remembering that I grew up in a community that was ahead of its time in diversity, certainly for the 1960s; and for a number of years my family’s next door neighbors, and the household next to them on the other side of their home, were black. And yet, in spite of those circumstances and a wonderful college experience, I had betrayed myself by keeping silent.
I wish my confidence today was more secure in believing that we have plenty of time to do better, that is, to speak with one another. But while I am not given to sensational claims, I am convinced that we are at risk of being “too late” in our politics, society, and culture, and much of that same urgency for improvement is hovering over the American campus. If the uncomfortable conversations about difference do not happen while we are all together at St. Lawrence, then just when will this moment of breaking silence transpire?
An important second principle to live by when we speak to one another is simply that truthfulness is ultimately trustworthy. If inhibitions, false modesty, and repressions are the walls guarding silence, they also contain a vital reality of life that must break out for human beings to become whole. And this confessional moment also has consequences for the quality and strength of a community.
I have seen people in midlife who have been encumbered by a superficiality that pop-psychology has sometimes named, “arrested adolescence.” They have not really grown up, or have outgrown their preconceptions, because they have never really learned the skills to have uncomfortable conversations. And further, they have missed the hidden, valuable warrant of self-awareness. There is a point in the path of every important thought when it is dangerous to leave it any longer unframed in words, or unspoken to another.
At its best, the occasion to break silence and to speak with one another, either as kind strangers or polite adversaries, invites a possibility that exceeds mere academic respect, even as primary as that is in our habits of learning. To be and to have a friend is one of life’s great joys; and I hasten to tell you, you who may doubt it on a campus where friendship comes warmly, naturally, and readily, that it is a great joy to have a friend, because in this hard world, such a lasting experience of friendship is rarer than you know. Emerson said, “a friend is a person before whom I may be sincere.”
Finding the right vocabulary and being open to an unexpected friendship are what I wish that today’s reflection on Dr. King’s life may impart to you. This is not original advice, no matter how different, difficult, or troubled our time may seem right now, because there have been other years of tribulation in the world’s history, though none perhaps with our scale and pace.
Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion, who was executed by the Romans two thousand years ago by being burned alive while wrapped in the parchment of the Torah, gave us these lasting, famous words of Mishna: “If two sit together and there are no words of Torah spoken between them, then this is a session of scorners…but if two sit together and there are words of Torah spoken between them, then the Shekhinah (the glory of the presence of God) abides among them.” The Rabbi had not missed the point in the text: “Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another.”
I sang as a boy growing up in our Universalist Church a hymn called “I would be true,” known just as memorably by the tune of Londonderry Air, the song that also became the much loved “Danny Boy.” The words were used for the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, but they fit our new day at St. Lawrence, our shared hope for speaking together, again, this semester.
I would be true, for there are those that trust me.
I would be pure, for there are those that care.
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer.
I would be brave, for there is much to dare.
I would be friend of all, the foe, the friendless.
I would be giving, and forget the gift,
I would be humble, for I know my weakness,
I would look up, and laugh, and love and live.