This week and next, we would do well to pause and reflect on the solemn and universal backdrop against which this period of time unfolds every year.
It is a period that reminds us of those historical encounters between governors and governed, when every act of the authorities exasperates the people and every refusal to act excites their contempt. A period of 12 days that should rend our souls asunder with searing intensity and pierce our hearts with rape-like violation. A period that begins with a date held sacred to all those of conscience who engage in the struggle for mankind’s transcendent yearning for redemptive change. A period that ends with a date that challenges us to fulfill that struggle as we bear witness to mankind’s debased desertion of any of its noble aspirations.
January 15 would have been the 78th birthday of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. January 17 is the 62nd anniversary of the disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg. And January 27 will mark the 62nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Astonishingly, the United Nations, at whose entrance are carved the words of Isaiah that “Swords shall be beaten into plowshares and nation shall not make war against nation anymore,” officially commemorated the Holocaust for the first time only last year.
The contrasts are telling, and their lessons are 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 by the horrors of Auschwitz, making this world brittle and arid and stench-filled.
During these days, the heavens themselves seem to challenge us to rage.
All these sad dates stand as confirmation of the low limitations of the era in which we still live. It is an era characterized by the failure of faith, the retreat of reason and the humiliation of hope. It is an era that, with rare exceptions, has been permeated with the odious odors of justice compromised by timidity, honor cheapened through expediency and promise mortgaged to avarice.
For the litmus test of mankind’s civility is not how we treat those who are many, or agreeable, or privileged, or quiescent, but rather how we treat those who are few, and different, and alienated, and stubborn. The world is still failing that test.
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. For in the dead of night we will forever be haunted by those failures as the thin, humid rivulets of sweat crawl over us like vermin.
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.
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. Wrapping ourselves in cloaks of charity will not absolve us of our complicity in impotent acquiescence to the daily torrent of state-sponsored deceptions and institutional betrayals.
We seem to react when it costs us nothing in terms of our personal bottom lines. We readily accept whatever manipulated mages 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, King and the generation of survivors refused to surrender. Their testaments are living ones to this day. Testaments to a world that sees wrongs and tries to right them; sees suffering and tries to heal it, sees injustice and tries to stop it. A world that rejects the cowardice of the fey and feckless that would have us acquiesce in our own self-abnegation.
If we do not keep faith with the memory and witness of these 12 days; if we ever forget the imperative of redemptive rage; if we stop daring to care, then we will have betrayed the visionary hope embodied in the line of the Song of the Partisans that was shared at the mountaintop by all the Wallenbergs and Kings, the Mandelas and Kennedys and the Sharanskys and Walesas: “Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho” — “Upon us yet will dawn the day we hold so dear.”
And when the false prophets cry “Peace! Peace!”, there will be none left to shout back, “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 from heaven to have mercy.
Beryl Wajsman is president of the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal and publisher of Barricades magazine.