A model for the Middle East

Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, given 50 years ago this week on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, is a testament to human dignity with few parallels in the annals of history.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 370 (photo credit: Reuters/ screen shot)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 370
(photo credit: Reuters/ screen shot)
Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem had an extraordinary visitor for several Sundays in 1930-31: a young German named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In Eric Metaxas’s gripping biography of Bonhoeffer, he speculates that some of the church’s 14,000 congregants were born into the “horrid institution” of slavery.
Bonhoeffer, a budding theologian bent on living and experiencing faith rather than theorizing about it, was not impressed by the intellectual and spiritual laziness of his American peers at Union Theological Seminary in New York. An exception was Albert Fisher, an African-American classmate at Union who was assigned to Abyssinian.
Having grown “weary of the sermons in places like Riverside,” Bonhoeffer eagerly joined Fisher at Abyssinian.
Both sought the radical experience inherent in the Christian life. Metaxas writes: “There, in the socially downtrodden African American community, Bonhoeffer would finally hear the gospel preached and see its power manifested.”
There Bonhoeffer also observed the nascent civil rights movement taking shape.
“[I]t really does seem to me that there is a real movement forming,” Bonhoeffer would write to his brother in Germany.
Bonhoeffer joined Fisher on a trip to Washington, DC, where he was refused service on account of his black companions.
His sojourn through the American South made a “shameful impression”; he noted that it pleased him “when the whites had to crowd into their railway cars while often only a single person was sitting in the entire railway car for negroes.” He expressed his contempt for what he witnessed in a letter to his brother, noting that the treatment of Jews in Germany was “a joke by comparison.”
And so, as Metaxas notes, it may have seemed at the time.
World War II would forever alter the fortunes of blacks in America, much as it did for Jews in Europe. The former, who had served dutifully despite segregation, now demanded equality; the latter, who had once been integral parts of the public cultures of their nations, had lost over six million in the Holocaust.
The Jews would find refuge in the State of Israel; America’s blacks would alter America from within, but the movement they began would not end there.
Watching blacks across the Atlantic breaking social and political shackles nearly as dehumanizing as the literal shackles of slavery, Catholics in Northern Ireland were inspired to begin a movement of their own.
Religious discrimination in Northern Ireland was notorious and unapologetic. Discriminatory practices had long existed in employment, education, housing and even marriage.
Years later, the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland has been largely successful.
Significantly, Northern Ireland proved that the spirit of equality that had begun with racial equality could extend to ending religious bigotry.
Another such movement is needed today.
ACROSS THE Middle East, Christians presently find themselves under attack. What was once religious discrimination in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt has escalated in recent years into persecution. Iraq’s Christian population, which numbered over a million just a few years ago, is today approximately 400,000, following a campaign of eradication in the wake of the 2003 Gulf War.
Syria, once a haven for Christians fleeing Iraq, has seen those Christians become a particular target for violent fundamentalists among Syria’s rebel faction. And Egypt, where now al-Qaida is reportedly closely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, has followed this pattern through systematic violence against Christians.
The Middle East, torn apart by decades of violence and oppression and struggling with its own internal human rights issues, does not always tolerate free expressions of conscience or belief. Neither did America half a century ago.
Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, given 50 years ago this August on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, are a testament to human dignity with few parallels in the annals of history. For King’s courage, he would become a martyr to the cause of equality on a morning in April in 1968, among the great martyrs of that century, though by no means the only one. On an April morning in 1945, as World War II, the defining event of the 20th century, drew to a close, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was stripped naked, led into a courtyard, and hanged by the Nazis for his role in the German resistance.
The courage and conviction of men like King and Bonhoeffer is not missing from the world today. From Asia to Africa, their example continues to inspire many. In the Middle East, where human dignity often finds itself under attack from fundamentalism and extremism, King and Bonhoeffer offer a courageous example, one that is every day being followed by many courageous men and women in the Middle East. It is an injustice that we do not even know their names.The writer served on the executive secretariat of the US National Commission for UNESCO.