by Michael A. Cowan
In the ancient book of wisdom called Proverbs we read: “Without a vision, the people perish.” I might add, without a shared vision, we are left with divisions. Divisions limit, they damage, they kill.
The quality of life for all in the New Orleans to come depends not only on fair and feasible plans to fix the many things that are strained or broken here, but also on a shared vision underneath all our plans. It is painfully evident that New Orleans currently lacks such a unifying vision. I am convinced that Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream for America can light the way to a diverse, prosperous and equitable future New Orleans, and I would like to remind us of that dream, its source, and its challenge to us in New Orleans today. In 1962 Dr. King said:
“When the desegregation process is one hundred percent complete, the human relations dilemma of our nation will still be monumental unless we launch now the parallel thrust of the integration process. In the context of what our national community needs, desegregation alone is empty and shallow. We must always be aware that our ultimate goal is integration, and that desegregation is only a first step on the road to the good society. Integration is creative, and is therefore more profound and far-reaching than desegregation. Integration is the positive acceptance of desegregation and the welcomed participation of [all] in the total range of human activities. Integration is genuine interpersonal, intergroup doing. Integration is the ultimate goal of our national community. We do not have to look very far to see the pernicious effects of a desegregated society that is not integrated. It leads to physical proximity without spiritual affinity. It gives us a society where elbows are together and hearts are apart. It gives us spatial togetherness and spiritual apartness.”
People of good faith acting together for the well being of all: That was Dr. King’s American dream. He had a special name for it, which he discovered in the writings of a white theologian: the “Beloved Community.” The list of things that cry out to be done together across lines of ethnicity, religion and class in New Orleans will overwhelm us if we let it.
As a lifelong member and ordained minister of the black church, Dr. King’s prophetic vision was deeply shaped by the Jewish prophets. How often and how powerfully did we hear him retrieve the unforgettable words of Amos: “Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” I want to dwell for a moment on the vision of “righteousness” from the great Jewish tradition, because it was the foundation stone of Dr. King’s vision, and because I am convinced that it holds particular meaning for our troubled city — and nation — right now. According to the biblical record, in times of trial, when despair filled the horizon of the Chosen People and there seemed no way out, God’s spirit would come upon that community through anointed leaders. When it did, three things always happened.
First, the system of justice was restored to reliable and proper functioning for all. Second, those who had been marginalized — the widow, the orphan, the outsider — came into fuller participation in the public life of the community. Third, those who had renewed their commitment to justice and the inclusion of all had a powerful experience of God’s presence among them.
In New Orleans today, our first Beloved Community challenge is restoring proper functioning to our criminal justice system. But as Rabbi Busch of Touro Synagogue reminded me, in the Jewish tradition, the practice of justice is not limited to proper operation of the criminal justice system; it extends to the entire functioning of government. Government must operate efficiently and equitably for all citizens. Waste, corruption and cronyism in city government have been a millstone around the neck of New Orleans. Envision a New Orleans known for transparent, accountable, and efficient city government. Many of us here may find that impossible to imagine, but remember: Without a shared vision the people perish.
In post-Katrina New Orleans, we also face the profound “Beloved Community” challenge of including all in the recovery and future of the city. Whether the current hot topic is public housing, neighborhood rebuilding, or public schools, we have seen plan after plan dismissed, paralyzed, or limited to a snail’s pace by flare-ups of ethnic and class divisions. Without a shared vision people suffer and perish, and our very real ethnic and class divisions bear a significant measure of responsibility for the agonizingly slow pace of our recovery. Reaching out actively to include those who have been marginalized in the life of our city is also the public work of righteousness, the work of establishing the “Beloved Community.”
Why has it been so hard for New Orleanians before and after Katrina to speak with one voice, to share a vision for our future? I believe the answer is that black political leaders and white business leaders have been unable to come to agreement for the well being of all, while civil society leaders from our faith, non-profit, neighborhood, and higher education institutions have been too segregated from each other to insist that they do so. Compounding this impasse is the social fact that in our preoccupation with the politics of white and black, we have consistently failed to acknowledge the presence and welcome the participation of New Orleans’ Hispanic, Asian, Arab and other cultural communities at the table of public life.
New Orleans has struggled against surges of despair that threaten to drown hope itself. For all who trace our faith to the willingness of a man named Abraham to go when and where he was sent — Jews, Christians and Moslems — the experience of hope is tied to the conviction that we are not alone in this moment of supreme challenge, that our God cares about how history goes, including the small but precious piece of history called “New Orleans.”
That is our choice. May Dr. King’s God-given dream of the “Beloved Community” named America recapture our hearts and imaginations and move us to transform the promising beginnings into a mighty stream of genuine interpersonal and intergroup doing for the well being of New Orleans and this nation. Without a shared vision the people perish; but with one, they flourish.
Michael A. Cowan is a theologian at Loyola University in New Orleans. The preceding commentary was adapted from a speech.