Today is the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech.” It rings especially loud again in 2020 with the death of George Floyd and just days ago the shooting of Jacob Blake. This year it’s not the mole hill vision than stands out to me, but the continued challenge that MLK makes so clear:
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
As a hospice chaplain I know that Karl Marx was perfectly right when he described religion as “opium for the masses.” With the end of life approaching, I find patients and families seeking comfort in religion. For the person on hospice care that is perfectly appropriate. They receive all kinds of medications for pain-relief. They may also use religion for pain-relief. Similar to the opioid crisis with pills, America is suffering from an opioid crisis with religion. A faith that is supposed to make the individual feel better, does not represent the wholeness of biblical witness, missing out on prophetic challenges. Spiritual Comfort Care in extremely high doses needs to be reserved for those who have absolutely no prospect of change in condition. Too often, healthy grownups get drunk on religion. That can be detrimental when they care for a family member on hospice care and religiosity is really a mode of denial. Religious sweetness can be lavished upon the dying as generously as they need and want it. As with any intervention the maxim is: the right dose at the right time.
I work in healthcare. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the teams I work with have been called heroes in so many ways. You have seen the images of nurses and doctors pulling extra shifts – exhausting themselves to the breaking point and beyond. They appear powerless at times because they can only respond to the needs of the patients. But the opposite is also true: Healthcare workers hold enormous power. You allow them to do things to your body that nobody else can. They have an expertise that is hard to question and most of the time you consent to a course of action that you only half understand. That is what healthcare ethics call a “power differential”.
It was a power differential that the 13 colonies of 1776 were no longer willing and able to accept. The Declaration of Independence lays out their lengthy list of grievances where the powerful British Empire took unfair advantage of the vulnerable colonists. In the closing paragraph they “solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.” The path forward is to be one of separateness.
But the Declaration of Independence does not stop there. It closes, “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” By creating this new country, by running away from that old abusive relationship, we come together as a community. This is not rugged individualism, this is not winner-takes-it-all. This is not us-versus-them. This is mutual respect and responsibility. This is unity. And yes, in 1776 those were only white men. We are still struggling to live up the the promise and pledge that we gave ourselves that the power differential shall not divide us. As Americans, we ought to treat one another with the respect that mutual healthcare models. We are all each other’s patient.