Ripples of Hope
Date: January 25, 2004 1:59:51 AM EST

Dear All,

Hope. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood for hope. He dreamt of a world as it ought to be – a Mississippi "transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice" and an Alabama "where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers." But where are we today? Not just in achieving Dr. King's dream – though that too is a question that needs answering – but in dreaming our own dreams.

Dr. King dared to dream great things, to paint a picture of the world as he hoped it would be, as he knew it could be. Of course, he did more than just dream and hope. He acted, working to infuse life into that vision. With thousands marching alongside him, a powerful vision of justice helped propel our nation forward. Part of his dream came to pass. Part remains unfulfilled to this day.

As Martin Luther King Day has recently passed – and at a time when on the world scene, the view is grim and hope may seem difficult to find – it is worth considering how that vision of justice, rooted in respect for human dignity and the equality of all people, can drive our national and international agenda.

These are troubled times. Hardly a week seems to go by when there isn't a deadly suicide bombing in Baghdad, Jerusalem, Istanbul or Kabul. Hardly a day seems to go by when another American soldier isn't killed in Iraq. On Saturday, five were killed.

Nowadays, the attention of the United States and much of the world seems drawn more to curtailing the bad than to creating the good. The desire to destroy the enemy seems to dominate over the desire to nurture a friend. A color-coded alert system tells us how afraid we should be today. We are told we are at war – a war on terror. Basic rights, such as the right to have one’s detention reviewed by an independent tribunal, have been suspended for anyone deemed an enemy in this war.

Our nation treats visitors to the United States – as well as some long-time residents– as potential enemies. Security measures are largely responsible for a 60% reduction in refugees admitted into the United States during the year after September 11, with little change expected in the year just ended. "Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" The question is: Who stole the lamp? And the bigger question is: How do we get it back? (For more on changes in immigration post-September 11, see

On another front, even as courts have increasingly recognized discrimination for what it is, and have ordered remedies to it, too many in this country continue to fear the love of a man for a man or a woman for a woman. Since when have we had too much love in our nation or in the world?

It takes courage to fight fear. In his Noble Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dr. King said: "I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits." And, one might add, a roof over their heads. In Washington, DC, where I live, during this freezing winter, homeless people huddle against hot-air grates on sidewalks practically across the street from the White House. In the shadows of Washington's great monuments, they set up their mobile homes of shopping carts, bags, and blankets. These are among our saddest monuments. Still, we don’t hear much these days about serious efforts by government to resolve this most visible sign of poverty in the United States. Indeed, the Administration is reportedly considering cutting Section 8 housing vouchers (now called housing choice vouchers), which assist very low-income families to obtain housing. (NY Times, Jan. 20, 2004)

The signs of poverty outside this country are even more pervasive, frightening, and sad. Nearly half the world's people live on less than $2 per day, and more than one billion live on less than $1 per day. It does not have to be this way. Back in 1949, Harry Truman declared that "[f]or the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and the skill to relieve the suffering of" the "[m]ore than half the people of the world . . . living in conditions approaching misery." Twelve years later, President Kennedy stated that "man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty."

Several years ago, the world's nations set the significant but less lofty goal of reducing absolute poverty (defined as living on less than $1 per day), as well as hunger, by 50 percent by 2015 (compared to 1990). This is one of the Millennium Development Goals, which are a series of targets that the international community set, and are supposed to be realized by 2015. They include achieving universal primary education and achieving gender equality at all levels of education. These are goals that must be met, though one must question why not even more ambitious goals. For example, at the dawn of the 21st century, what about also setting a goal for the proportion of students completing secondary education? And while some countries are on track to achieve these goals, many of the world’s poorest are not, in part due to HIV/AIDS. If the goals are achieved, the world will be somewhat healthier, better educated, and less hungry, and perhaps more hopeful. It's a beginning. Unfortunately, these goals are nearly hidden on the international agenda of our own country. (For more on the Millennium Development Goals, see

While extraordinary work still remains, even recent months have seen some glimmers of hope. In Afghanistan and Iraq, however distressing and painful the aftermath of the initial fighting, however tragic it is whenever any bomb falls, however disturbing the prelude to war in Iraq, the fact remains: two of the world’s most oppressive and brutal regimes are gone. A new constitution in Afghanistan guarantees the equal rights of women, and Iraq has the potential of becoming the perhaps the most democratic Arab country. The government of Afghanistan must extend its control beyond the capital Kabul, the nature of a new Iraqi government and constitution are still to be determined, and dangerous tensions among different factions are yet to be resolved, but at the least, both countries today have new hopes for freedom.

The Sudan, in part thanks to American mediation, appears to be fast approaching a formal end to a 20 year civil war between North and South that has left 2 million dead. The leaders of India and Pakistan, countries at the brink of war less than two years ago, have agreed to wide-ranging discussions, even about the flashpoint province of Kashmir. Brazil is in the early phases of implementing a Zero Hunger program, an effort to rid that country of one of poverty’s most basic markers. In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, a peaceful groundswell of opposition to a government saturated with corruption convinced its president to step down from power. In South Africa, overwhelming popular demand for anti-retroviral medications to treat HIV/AIDS and the leadership of people living with HIV/AIDS forced a reluctant government to produce a national HIV/AIDS treatment plan.

In South Africa, Georgia, and elsewhere, the people led, and a reluctant government followed. In the United States, perhaps the dream begins with us.

In a speech you can read or listen to at, Robert F. Kennedy reminded us of our responsibilities in his Day of Affirmation Address at the University of Capetown in South Africa, in June 1966:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

When next you feel the weight of the world around you – perhaps when you see at the conclusion of the Newshour with Jim Lehrer the names and faces of 11 more dead American soldiers, presented in solemn silence; perhaps when you pass a homeless person wrapped in blankets in the freezing winter cold; perhaps when you realize how many thousands of people die every day whose lives could be saved if only the world cared to save them – consider responding by sending forth your own ripple of hope. You might write or call your Congressperson or the President, or sign up to receive action alerts and other information from an organization involved in activities you care about, or volunteer your time to serve those on whom fortune may have turned a cold shoulder, or share your vision for tomorrow with a friend, or engage in any number of other activities.

Dr. King responded to violence with love. We can learn from him. How good it would be to respond to the violence of both action and inaction in the early 21st century with hope and with some love of our own. I know it will not always be easy, and we may not make as much progress or be able to respond as often as we might like. But the more we can do, the more powerful will become the current of hope that all those ripples will create. A world of justice for all, the world of which we dream, will begin to take shape.

Thank you.

Peace and Hope,

"I have only dreams: to build a better world, a world of harmony and understanding, a world in which it is a joy to live. This is not asking for too much." -- Yitzhak Rabin

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