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002. People Changing the World

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

It was an evening in late winter and our family had gathered together after dinner to listen to the news. However, tonight was different. Tonight the crackles that usually emanated from our old radio were replaced with exciting black and white pictures on our new television set! Tonight would be all about change.

I watched as grainy images told me about events occurring simultaneously on the other side of the world. It was 1963 and a black man, a Baptist minister by the name of Martin Luther King Jr., was standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of a crowd of more black people than I had ever seen in one place in my whole life.

This March on Washington was a demonstration for freedom, a defining moment in the American Civil Rights movement that drew together a great mass of people on a scale unknown in my own small country of fewer than three million. What, I wondered, could have brought this great gathering together?

Slowly I realised that the people – and there were whites and even children like myself amongst them – were participating in a peaceful March for Freedom. In a voice that rang out clear and certain across the ranks of marchers Mr. King was boldly proclaiming that this vast gathering would go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of their nation.

As his words echoed out across the now-silent masses, the sense of unity became an almost palpable force. It seemed that the only division to be seen in that great throng was in the long still body of water stretching out and away from the Lincoln Memorial like a pointer reaching out to God Himself.

Then Mr. King began to talk about the promises upon which their nation had been built, promises about rights and freedom and justice and of something he called ‘the fierce urgency of now’. He described it as a solid rock of brotherhood, and announced that there would be no rest or tranquility until justice was a reality for all of God’s children.

As his words fell upon us like spring rains after a hard cold winter my mind began to travel back in time, back to my early childhood memory of Jesus seated on a rock, only now I was thinking of it as a ‘rock of brotherhood’, on a hillside with the children of the world gathered about Him. As he went on to describe what it truly meant to accept that we were all created equal, the words began to paint a new picture in my mind. It was a picture of some future day when, on every hill just like that hill, all the children of the world would be seated together around a table. He said it was the Table of Brotherhood.

Then his words set out to paint a new picture of an Oasis of Freedom and Justice where colour no longer mattered but only the content of people’s characters. Encircling that oasis in my imagination I could see rows of little black boys and black girls timidly but courageously reaching out to join hands with little white boys and white girls like myself until it was just as if we were all sisters and brothers; one family.

Then I began to imagine many different mountainsides in different places all over the world and from these hillsides a new sound was beginning to peal; it was the Sound of Freedom, ringing ever more loudly and joyfully from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, whilst all around those hillsides chains of people began to form – children and grown-ups too – hand in hand, arm in arm, singing the songs of freedom.

The songs that they sang were like the Trumpet of Joshua tearing down the walls that had divided us, until all of God’s children – Protestants and Catholics, black children and white children – were able to join hands and sing the same words of the old Negro spiritual that was now playing as a soundtrack to the news item;

“Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Twenty years after Dr. King’s address to the Washington freedom marchers I found myself seated on the exact hillside upon which Christ had sat in my childhood picture, looking across Galilee to Capernaum. Two thousand years had passed since He called those little children to Him, since He had addressed His followers from that very mount of Karn Hattin, saying “blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God”. After the passage of two thousand years this Holy Land should have been the most perfect place on earth. It should have been a place of peace and prosperity, a place that all the children of the world could consider as our collective ‘home’, the birthplace of our common spiritual ancestor Abraham.

As I sat on that hillside and gazed out across the troubled waters of Galilee lying greyly below with the same hard metallic grey as the skies above I shivered and pulled my jacket close around my shoulders in protection against the icy slivers of wind running their bitter fingers inside my open shirt collar. The wind was blowing down from the hills of the Golan Heights. Up there somewhere, concealed in those black hills, were the hard grey metallic weapons of war, poised to guard and repel.

For my travelling companion, a Jewish Baha’i friend, it was a return home to the place of her ancestors. We had been travelling across the skies of the world for some 30 hours from our little country of New Zealand, fondly called Godzone, where in place of guns, our policemen carried short batons that looked no more fearsome than my mother’s rolling pin. We had not been able to take the shortest, most direct flight to Israel as it was too dangerous for people of certain faiths to travel through those regions. Even before we arrived in this troubled land we were becoming used to the sight of guns, used to the need for security checks and the presence of soldiers.

On the trip from Haifa to Galilee we passed the occasional tank trundling heavily along the road like some lumbering dinosaur – remnant of our primitive past – passing knots of the grey beasts-of-war gathered together along the roadside with other members of that fearsome species that should have passed into extinction long ago. Occasionally the air would shake with the sound of an overhead fighter jet breaking the sound barrier.

Then my mind travelled back in time and place to the year of nineteen sixty-three, and to that freedom march that was not, as Dr. King had said, an end but only a beginning. He had been talking about America but now I saw that his words were true for the whole world. I had come to recognise the truth that in reality the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens. We are all family.

I could see the truth in his assertion that there would be neither rest nor tranquillity in the world until every one of our children was granted full citizenship. As I shivered in the cold wind I saw how the whirlwinds of revolt, the bitter cold of hatred and prejudice, would inevitably continue to shake the foundations of our world until that day when we finally recognise that we are not strangers but family, until we have matured to the point that we are able to overcome those forces that are the remnants of our primitive past with the great all-encompassing soul-force of unity.

When King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in the year that followed the freedom march, it brought fresh hope to oppressed people everywhere who had been longing for that bright day of justice to emerge, longing for the time that it would become a reality, not just for me and not just for you but for all of God’s children. It seemed as if his words had lighted some touch paper in the hearts of a generation because from that time onwards more and more of us became enkindled by the same flame that burned with the ‘fierce urgency of now’.

We, the generation born into the world that emerged from the destruction of the Second World War, now looked about us with different eyes. We weren’t so sure that we wanted to trust the politicians and statesmen and other figureheads of society who had led our parents into a hideous all-consuming battle to fight in the name of the same God to whom their enemies also prayed, to fight against strangers with whom they held no personal grudge, many of whom shared a common ancestry.

The carnage that had been wreaked on our planet in the name of church and state had led many to view both with the same mistrust. We didn’t want to walk the path that had led our forefathers to hate and kill. We were sure that somewhere there must be a better way and now we wanted to figure it all out for ourselves.

When I was entering my teens Western youth culture was beginning to assume an identity and self-awareness that had never existed previously. We were amongst the swelling ranks of the ‘baby-boomers’ whose parents were still recovering from the horrors of a war that had threatened to choke the whole planet in a pall of hatred and unforgiveness. We looked around us and saw that despite all the religions of the past claiming to uphold the virtues of love and the Golden Rule – to treat others as they themselves would like to be treated – and despite all sharing the dream of an age of peace to come, humanity seemed further from that goal than ever.

Youth were disenchanted with the customs and conventions of the past; we wanted to shake off the traditions and historical attitudes of a world that had known only centuries of warfare, a world that had now been changed forever by the development of nuclear weapons, and 'men on the moon'. We wanted to free ourselves of the limitations and outdated views of past generations who had predated the revolutionizing influence of television and global communications. We were ready to open our hearts and minds to the potentialities of new models of human relationship. A spark of unity had been lit to outshine the gloom of the past and respond to ‘the fierce urgency of now’, gathering many to a brighter future around a new Table of Brotherhood.


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