I try to read something by or about Martin Luther King (MLK) in January in celebration of his birthday. I do this primarily out of a sense of deep gratitude for the gift of freedom he gave us all. “BECAUSE HE WAS, WE CAN”. But also to get renewed inspiration from his vision, eloquence and his fearless determination to overcome daunting odds with such dignified composure. I re-read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” again this year. It is an excellent read and you can see for yourself at (http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html).
As an added bonus this time, my wife and I were visiting relatives in Atlanta during the holidays. Of course, the MLK Center was on our MUST see list. I was a bit surprised by the feeling of wonder I sensed going through me just by physically being there. The eternal flame and the numerous marble etchings on the walk ways among them, “BECAUSE HE WAS… I CAN”, by Kindergartner (at least at the time of the etching), Junior Vasques. The absolutely stupid things men come up with to declare their worst prejudices as “laws”. The nice people (of all colors) who stood up and dismantled those silly “laws” so we, the beneficiaries of their struggles, can enjoy freedoms many of them never got to see. It was a wholesome experience for the body and soul. As I took all these in, my daughter’s email signature line that says “a society grows great when old men plant trees under whose shade they know they will never sit” flashed through my mind. And they sure did. Where would we all be without the shades of freedom the trees they planted now provide?
As one reads “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, it is hard to resist drawing parallels between the horrible conditions MLK fought against and the equally horrible conditions happening in today’s Eritrea. Take a look.
ON INDIVIDUAL AND GROUP IMMORALITIES
“Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”
The desire to protect material possessions and the privilege of frequent vacations are often mentioned as the primary reasons diaspora Eritreans keep bowing to a lawless regime that has debased centuries-old societal values. Compared to years past, there now seems to be a glimmer of hope that individuals are taking positive, albeit unsteady, steps towards giving up this “unjust posture”. As I see it, voices that used to bark loudly at dissenting voices before, have either become less common or turned the volume down a bit. One wonders if the beast has eaten enough of its children already. A welcome and good sign for sure. But these positive steps need to steady up really fast before group immorality dominates yet again.
As to group immorality, need one say more than the trance-inducing slogans the regime so cleverly crafts to keep minds numbed and hearts hardened to stone? Blowing the whistle of “meKete” (defiance), the regime has repeatedly been able to move the focus away from its egregious crimes with ease. This self-hypnotizing word is one of the potent weapons used to scatter people’s attention in a futile search for phantom enemies. And with a blink of an eye, the destroyer becomes the protector. The irony is that diaspora groups who support the regime, hold demonstrations and other forms of free expression afforded to them by their adopted countries, with full knowledge that the freedoms they freely exercise outside are absolutely denied to their brothers and sisters inside Eritrea.
ON WHICH LAWS TO OBEY
“I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."”
Shouldn’t we all then disobey the regime’s unjust laws, which are no laws at all? These “laws” include shoot-to-kill orders against those who dare to free themselves from slavery, innocent people wasting away in prisons all across the country, jailing elderly parents for ransom, the take-over of religious institutions so obedient “religious leaders” can be deposed and anointed at will; just to name a few.
“A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.”
Only in Eritrea’s case, the unjust “laws” are concocted by a handful and imposed on the whole population. No questions asked.
ON DISTORTED LOGIC
“In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?”
Or blaming survivors of shoot-to-kill policy for “deserting” a regime (falsely equated to the country) that has deprived them of life and where a future of servitude is the only guarantee. Or blaming the few brave souls who dared to speak up and disappeared for bringing it upon themselves, in essence, saying “don’t they realize how ruthless the regime is? They should have known better and kept their mouths shut”. If MLK had used that feeble logic to guide his actions, we wouldn’t be enjoying the freedoms that everyone takes fore-granted now. Good thing he didn’t.
THERMOSTAT OR A THERMOMETER?
“In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”
How can Eritrean society be transformed if diapora Eritreans choose to curse the very freedoms they enjoy in the West by aligning themselves with a regime whose key trademarks are vicious cruelty against its own people and absolute denial of freedom to all? Repeating “meKete” like a zombie is being a mere thermometer, going with the flow, parroting things just to be part of the crowd. Where is the courage in that? The courage is in being the thermostat, and to stop blaming victims and glorifying criminals.
ARE OUR SOULS AT REST?
“… seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: "My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest."
It was not too long ago that so-called “revolutionaries” used to blame our fore fathers for ‘selling’ Eritrea. Now that we have become our fathers, what will the next generation say about the abysmal role we are playing – selfishly enjoying freedom ourselves and yet so willing to deny it to others? Could it be that we don’t have souls to speak of anymore?
“… right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant”
And that is the consolation and reason for eternal hope and optimism. That in spite of the crashing frustration Eritrea’s people are subjected to and in spite of the overwhelming power the oppressors enjoys today, the “rascals will be thrown out” one day. Then what? Will we act like zombies again? Will natural allies miss yet another golden opportunity again, as appears to be the case nowadays, by wasting precious time bickering amongst each other only to allow another dictator “waiting in embryo” to take over? Let’s hope not.
I will close with this quote which, for me, shows the convergence of MLK’s humility, his humanity and clarity of his vision. Thank you Martin Luther King!! “Because you were, I can”.
“If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me”