On Jan. 12, a massive earthquake, registering 7.0 on the Richter scale, struck Haiti, reducing much of its capital, Port au Prince, to rubble. It was the worst earthquake in the region in more than 200 years, with as many as 50,000 feared dead. United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told NBC's "Today" program that 3 million people - about a third of Haiti's population - had been affected by the quake. Major buildings including the Presidential Palace, the UN headquarters, hospitals, schools and prisons have collapsed. Whole neighborhoods have been wiped out.
Haiti is, by a significant margin, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with four out of five people living in poverty. What this means is that there will be even more victims over the next several weeks, maybe even months, because of the lack of medical care and housing, poor sanitation, and shortage of food and safe water.
When a natural disaster like this earthquake hits an impoverished area, it shines a bright light on the inequality and injustice still very much present in our world. Do you know why so many buildings collapsed in this earthquake? Because they were poorly constructed and made of inferior materials. Do you know why the death toll will continue to rise for weeks to come? Because Haiti doesn’t have the infrastructure in place or the resources to save people who might still be alive right now.
On October 17, 1989, a massive earthquake, registering 6.9 on the Richter scale, struck the San Francisco Bay Area of California, which all things considered is a wealthy area. While it’s not completely accurate to compare the earthquake in Haiti to the earthquake in California, it is noteworthy that only 63 people were killed in California compared to an estimated 50,000 in Haiti. Only 3,757 were injured and only between 3,000-12,000 people were left homeless in California compared to much, much larger numbers in Haiti. Why did Californians fair so well? It wasn’t because they were lucky, and it wasn’t because God is on their side. It’s because they have more money. They have more resources. They have more hosptilas. Their buildings and homes are built of the finest materials available.
The injustice of it all is striking. Here we have similar earthquakes in terms of how strong they are, both in densely populated areas, but the end result is so much worse for the Haitians than for the Californians. The unfairness of it all makes me think about Hurricane Katrina. There are still people homeless in New Orleans and that happened in August 2005. Four and one-half years ago! I think that if a tragedy like that would have happened on the East Coast, basically everything would be restored by now.
It takes people of conviction to end injustice and inequality in this world. Conviction provides the motivating force that leads to action, and action is what is needed for change to happen.
The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of conviction.
On August 28, 1963, King spoke at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. at the largest civil rights rally in the history of the US (which he helped to organize) with more than 200,000 people gathered together for a nonviolent protest aimed at securing justice for black Americans.
In the beginning of King’s famous, “I Have a Dream” speech, he said these words:
“But one hundred years [after the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves], the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”
King was 100% positive, he was convinced that his people deserved more, that they deserved better. King described the problems of segregation like this:
“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by a sign stating: "For Whites Only."* We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
That last line is Scripture. King’s conviction was based in what he knew to be true about God. He knew from reading the prophets that Almighty God deplores economic injustice and oppression. The Prophet Isaiah says, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people” (Isaiah 10: 1-2). While those words were written thousands of years ago, they were completely relevant to our government in 1968, and probably even still today in some capacity.
It was King’s leadership that inspired the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, on behalf of whom he spoke, to have a nonviolent policy when they protested. King based his philosophy on the teaching of Jesus and those of the Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi. It was Jesus who taught King to turn the other cheek. It was Jesus who said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6: 27-28). King shows that he is a disciple when he said:
But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is an inspiration for all of God’s people. As we celebrate him and the victories of the civil rights movement this weekend, let us also contemplate what our convictions are. What do you care about?
Children are being abused and sent to work in sweatshops.
Girls are being sold into sex slavery.
Woman and people of color still make less money and have less opportunity than white men.
Our country is engaged in war and prisoners of war are being tortured.
The continent of Africa is dying of AIDS.
The environment is being polluted. The land fills are filling up with water bottles, the air and oceans are being polluted, trees are being cut down at alarming rates.
Animals are being raised in inhumane conditions, such as factory farms.
Americans are dying from diseases related to obesity while large potions of the world are dying from hunger.
We know the commandments of God. We know the teachings of Jesus Christ. Let’s get educated and figure out what is going on that is wrong, no if, ands, or but about it, and let’s get convicted as a church.
One of the saddest, yet happiest stories that I read online, was that on Friday, an Australian television news crew helped to rescue a 16-month-old girl from the ruins of a destroyed house in Haiti. It’s a happy story because they rescued her, but it’s a sad story because the girl had been buried in her house next to her dead father and mother for three days without food and water. Local residents could hear her crying and were trying to dig her out from under the rubble, but for some reason, it took a man who came from half way around the world to actually pull her out.
Let me close with the Starfish story of Loren Eiseley:
Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.
One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.
As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.
He came closer still and called out "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?"
The young man paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean."
"I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" asked the somewhat startled wise man.
To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die."
Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, "But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!"
At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, "It made a difference for that one."