Some years ago a famous novelist died. Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: “A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.” This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.
One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. The large house in which we live demands that we transform this world-wide neighborhood into a world-wide brotherhood.
In 1967, Martin Luther King wrote these words in an article, The World House. Tragically, it would be one of his last writings. Its message is as apt today as it was 50 years ago.
We recently began the book of Exodus, and in a few months, we will celebrate our holiday of Passover. When thinking about the injustices of our country, the intolerance, systemic prejudice, racism and sexism, it will hard to say that we are free. We are still enslaved. And I think this is worse than our Biblical slavery because in this case, we are doing it to ourselves.
King talked about the danger of selfishness and self-interest. Too many in our society are concerned more with an investment stock portfolio and not concerned enough with their stock of morals or actions. King wrote, The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.
Too many people fail to remain awake. I think that this is the most important phrase. We all have biases. We all have assumptions. And if we’re honest with ourselves, many of us will admit that we have stereotypes of different races, religions and creeds. The task of remaining awake is an active process of effort and work.
Imagine that during this Shabbat service, we saw someone collapse (God forbid). We would run over to help. We would comfort that person’s spouse and friends. We would drive him or her to the hospital. But here’s the painful truth: people are collapsing all around us, and we turn a blind eye. Folks are crying out for voting rights. People are crying out for fair treatment in the workplace. Some are collapsing because they are afraid that they might be more likely to be shot by police simply because of the color of their skin. People are crying out for help from the wonderful countries in Africa and from Haiti and Mexico. And for all of this, it’s far too easy to avert our gaze.
As a privileged white male, it’s easy for me to be blind to these realities. That’s why I must be willing to listen. To hear the pain of others. To understand the experiences of others. This is what it means to remain awake. In order to have an informed opinion about racism, I must be in relationships with African-Americans who have experienced racism. I have the privilege to be able to ignore racism. But I have the responsibility to confront it.
During the recent Union for Reform Judaism Biennial in Boston, the author David Grossman put it another way. He urged us to set ourselves free from the politics of avoidance.
The plague of darkness was the 9th plague that God inflicted upon the Egyptians. But wouldn’t darkness affect Israelites and Egyptians alike? midrash suggests that the pitch black darkness that covered the land did not affect the Israelites - they could see clear as day. They were able to see because of the clarity of their moral ideals, their faith, and their love.
I am afraid that we are starting to live in a time of darkness. Most are not awake to the systemic problems of racism. But we can bring light to the nations. We can help to build a peaceful world house. Martin Luther King helped build the foundation, and now it’s up to us to continue this necessary, messy, difficult, wonderful work. I’ll conclude with King’s words:
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.