A Contrast of Continents

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. ... Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." The words are needlepointed in cream thread, perfect lines on a strip of cadet blue burlap that's been tucked into my high school diploma folder for going on 24 years, pressed between a $2 bill and my valedictory address. 

My English teacher senior year had also been my English teacher in seventh grade. We were the first class she looped, and she told us all how special it was for her to have been with us the year we entered the building as well as the year we left it. She stitched a bookmark for each one of us (all 88 graduates, if I remember correctly). Each delicate gift bore a quote she'd selected just for that student. Mine was the excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s letter from Birmingham Jail. 

I remember being profoundly touched by the thoughtfulness of the gift. Although many of the friends I've made as an adult might not realize it (I have a reputation for logic, rational thought, and a calming presence), I am prone to being swamped by emotions. That was certainly the case as my rather extraordinary high school class approached our graduation day. Seeing the quote my teacher chose for me brought on the tears. What an honor!

Every year on Martin Luther King Day, I think back to that quote and the fabric tucked away along with mementos from long ago. This year was far cry from the celebrations of African American culture and history that I remember attending during my youth. None of my friends were up for a gospel duo's concert marking efforts toward race unity (and the venue was small enough that I didn't feel right taking up a seat all by myself). Besides that event, the likelihood for speeches and comments to turn political (or personal), overtly or covertly, put me off public events. There's simply nothing constructive in that, no matter what position a person has taken.

Meanwhile, and from many miles away, the nightly news devoted its current zip-point-two minutes of international coverage to rough footage of the protests in Iran. For a nation that prides itself on the important role of journalism, they pretty much lost the lead. The story with some meat to it wasn't really the protests. It was the concentrated, systematic efforts to keep information about the protests from reaching the wider world. Just like the goal is to keep information about what happens to the Baha'is from reaching the rest of the world.

And just like the goal is to keep attention away from the Baha'i man in Yemen who was sentenced to execution last week, following the same pattern the Iranian government (which backs the Houthi faction in Yemen) used against the Baha'is in the early days of the Iranian Revolution. After four years in prison, under torture and duress, this man is condemned to die for the "crime" of being a Baha'i.

People ask me all the time why being a Baha'i is treated like being a criminal in some other countries. As Americans, we'd sum it up as, "He says different prayers." And everybody would kind of nod their heads and say, "You do you, dude."

After all, the U.S. was founded in some part by people seeking the freedom to practice their religion as they chose. In reality, it was 95 percent founded by people seeking riches and fame. But the 5-percent story of various English Puritan groups looking for a place to worship without persecution makes for a much more noble national lineage. Note that it was about English Christians of one stripe attempting to escape the yoke of English Christians of another stripe. We won't even mention the third major group of English Christians whom no one wanted on the boats or at home (I wonder if Plymouth still has stealth Catholics among its historical interpreters ... that was one of the most interesting parts of my visit there as a kid). 

The reason "you do you" isn't the response in Iran, or in an Iran-backed Yemeni court, is one of theology. Baha'is interpret a particular statement of the Prophet Muhammad in a way that really challenges a theocratic clergy's understanding of itself. That statement is that Muhammad was "The Seal of the Prophets." Among many Muslims, including those in positions of power in Iran, that title is taken to mean that God would never send another Messenger. Baha'is, instead, believe that Muhammad was the last in a now-completed cycle of Prophets that began with Adam ... and that Baha'u'llah was the first in a new cycle of messengers who will bring about universal peace, justice and unity over the next few thousand years.

To an American, the concept might be uncomfortable. Mostly because it has anything to do with religion at all. As a nation, we're not comfortable with large-scale issues of spiritual importance and the joining together of people whose prayers were revealed in unfamiliar languages (funny how we sort of blithely overlook the fact that even Christ spoke Aramaic, not English, ). I wonder sometimes what would happen if we asked, "Well, what if ...?" more often.

Perhaps it's that very unfamiliarity and discomfort with all things that don't fit neatly within the package of "America" stories that are passed down from generation to generation in school history books, that causes the general public to stay quiet and not look for details about what's happening to people in our own country or overseas.

On behalf of that Baha'i sentenced to die in Yemen, the international human rights community is sounding alarm bells in the halls of the UN and in the capitols of nearly every nation. But I have yet to see the name or the smiling face of Hamed bin Haydara in the national news here, with the exception of a short article in the Washington Post. This is a land where shining a spotlight on injustice is supposed to be in our national DNA ... despite that national DNA also bearing the marks of the still-unrecognized genocide that decimated our Native cultures, the still-expurgated slavery that outlasted that of other "civilized nations," the insidious aftermath of the Civil War that funneled the sentiments surrounding slavery into our national institutions, and the persistent tendency toward hatred for whichever immigrant group came after our own.

We have trouble comprehending injustice when it's directed toward people in shades and clothes and shapes that don't look like what we see in the mirror. When we do comprehend it, we frequently have no idea what to do about it in any practical way because injustice is one of those big words that stand for big ideas. And that require actual thought and curiosity to understand.

Said Dr. King: “When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact ... that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance; We've learned to fly the air like birds, we've learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven't learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters...”

So maybe we start small. Maybe it starts with noticing the people we see around us (smiling, waving and talking to our neighbors who seem alone and perhaps with the weight of the world on their shoulders ... especially if they don't look or sound like us).

Then, perhaps, doing something small to help correct the problems we see (the former coworker who frequently brought breakfast sandwiches to the homeless man roughing it on the street across from our office).

Maybe getting a little more systematic about it (helping out at a local senior center, homeless shelter, or other organization and actually getting to know those being served).

Maybe looking around a little father afield.

Maybe raising our voices on someone's behalf (we have a representative democracy, after all ... those folks have phones in their offices).

Maybe telling someone's story to our friends (do you know what's happening in...?)

Dr. King said: “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?' But ... the good Samaritan reversed the question: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” 

Every great army moves forward on the individual steps of each of its soldiers. And when we're moving shoulder to shoulder for love and for good, we move the world. It doesn't matter whether the injustice we see is here or there. None is more or less unjust than the other. Each of us needs to find our place alongside our brothers and sisters and move things forward.

"We are inevitably our brother's keeper because we are our brother's brother." Those are perhaps my favorites of all the words Dr. King said. Now, I just need to live up to them. We all need to live up to them.