The Lessons of King and Heschel

By Kerri Lobel, NGLTF executive director

Last month, I was honored to speak at an Atlanta synagogue service commemorating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led our country through a momentous historical passage. Their faith fueled their passion for social justice. The lessons they taught us are relevant to the challenges we face today. Because never before have the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) community and our progressive allies faced such an organized and entrenched opposition.

We have seen relentless attempts to roll back decades of progress. In fact, we face a successful right wing that is brazenly devoted to shifting the very ground upon which we walk. In the last five years, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community has faced hostile ballot measures and attempts to convert us to heterosexuality. We've seen increased violence against nearly every minority group in our country, illustrated poignantly last year by the savage murders of James Byrd and Matthew Shepard. We've withstood attacks on civil rights, affirmative action and immigrants. While some of us have been moved to action, others have stood by complacently, content with the status quo and feeling untouched by the winds that howl around us.

Dr. King said, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. A true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life."

He believed, as many of us believe, that "all life is interrelated." He wrote, "All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." He told us that whatever affects one directly, affects all directly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. "This," he said, "is the interrelated structure of reality."

There are those who would ask organizations like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force not to make the connections between GLBT issues and other issues, and I say this to those people: I can never be a woman on Wednesday, a lesbian on Thursday, and a Jew on Friday. Don't force me to choose between those pieces of myself. Don't force me to choose between my arm and my leg, my heart and my head. Each of us must demand a world where all of us can bring our full selves to the table and to every movement for social change.

It is this demand for both wholeness and social action that we must bring to our every corner, including our houses of worship. Faith without action means nothing. As Heschel wrote, "Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, and the vision."

When he returned from the voting rights march in Selma, Alabama in 1963, Heschel wrote King, "The day we marched together out of Selma was a day of sanctification. That day I hope will never be past to me - that day will continue to be this day."

For Heschel, that march had spiritual significance. He wrote, "I felt as though my legs were praying." He believed that there was an unseverable connection between faith and action. He believed that one should, as an African proverb said it, "pray with your feet."

Both of these men called on us to believe and act fully and completely. To them, the worst evil was indifference. As Heschel wrote, "The opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference. In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible." King said, "To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system." And in doing so, "the oppressed becomes as evil as the oppressor."

These are powerful and challenging words for turbulent times. I hope we take them to heart and join with one another, in Heschel's words, "to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, and the vision."

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