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Not America First

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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks on Jan. 1, 1960, in Washington, D.C. (Keystone Pictures USA/Zuma Press/TNS)

This Easter, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s martyrdom, we need his vision more than ever.

After more than a year of the new presidential administration, we know better now what the campaign slogan “America First” means. It means a new climate of fear for immigrants and those who support them, more acts of overt racism with the tacit approval of our leaders, a reckless attitude toward nature and climate change, new trade barriers, reliance on threats of war rather than diplomacy, attacks on the press, civil servants and scientists.

We have accepted xenophobia and a destructive incivility in our public discourse. We have made peace with tax policies that promote extreme inequality and retreated in our commitment to make health care available to everyone.

These seemingly disconnected policies share a basic philosophy. Behind them lurks a fear that there is not enough to go around and that the only way to deal with this scarcity is by taking care of only “our” people, the ones we think are like us.

SEE RELATED: Bay Area clergy struggle with political divisions at Easter

Fifty-three years ago this week, 5,000 people overflowed Grace Cathedral in San Francisco to hear King preach. Only three days earlier, he had wrapped up the Selma march with a speech on the steps of the Alabama state capitol.

By this point in the civil rights movement, King’s own house had been bombed, four 14-year-old girls had been killed by a bomb at their Birmingham church, friends of King had been murdered and demonstrators violently beaten as the new technology of television brought these scenes into every American living room.

During the service at Grace Cathedral, as King was preparing to speak, Dean Julian Bartlett noticed a mysterious figure on the catwalks 90 feet above the cathedral floor. He sent a verger up to investigate who discovered only a sheepish seminarian with a camera. The cathedral was on high alert with a large and visible security presence.

Although King had every reason to be afraid, that day he shared a message of generosity and hope. The sermon he preached, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” was based on the one he delivered when he was applying to be the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery.

For King, the length of life means having a healthy sense of self-respect and cultivating our inner powers so that we might be out best. The breadth of life concerns our responsibility to love our neighbor as ourselves in a “symphony of brotherhood.” For King, the height of life refers to our love for God.

Rather than proposing that we merely take care of our own, King talked about the suffering of people in other nations. He said that no nation can live alone, because, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

He preached that, “All life is interrelated. And we are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects us all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be …”

Throughout King’s too-brief public life, even in the face of criticisms that he might alienate his audience, he constantly extended the circle of his concern from civil rights in America to poverty, colonialism, the Vietnam War and the environment.

For Christians, Easter is not a matter of drawing distinctions between us and them, between the people who deserve our care and those who have to simply fend for themselves. It is not about the resuscitation of a dead body. It is not even chiefly about an historical event.

According to Christians, Easter is a sign of God’s power over sin and death, that even when things seem impossibly broken we can have faith in God. Easter is the promise that we can participate with God in healing the whole world.

Martin Luther King Jr. shows us that America First is an anti-Easter frame of mind.

The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young is the ninth dean of Grace Cathedral.

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