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King's words relate to problems of today

The most significant American of my lifetime has been Martin Luther King, Jr. Along with Abraham Lincoln, King was that rare American who could, in public debates, join the hurts and agonies of human with the wisdom of the Bible.

An example of this remarkable joining of agonies and wisdom in available in King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" written in the spring of 1963. The letter is written to clergy, who had protested to King and his associates that the timing of the boycott of Birmingham retail establishments was inopportune. "Why couldn't you wait? Why not trust in peaceful negotiations rather than a boisterous boycott?" At the heart of their questions was a hope that time would unfold in such a way that King's objectives would naturally be met and met without rancor or pain -- things presumably any clergy person would want to avoid.

King, of course, dismissed this notion of time as naive. He said, "We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation."

I think about King's prophetic sense of time particularly with regard to our time -- one year after the Persian Gulf war. His voice is deeply missed in our times; a voice that would have enabled us once again to recognize the naivete of time's inevitability and of the necessity of human responsibility to shape our time for peace and justice.

In a recent New Yorker, Richard Barnet demands that this nation shift its spending from defense to fixing this nation's internal rot. Examples of that rot abound in our society. For all the claims of excellence in our medical care, that care is absent for 37 million people who cannot afford health insurance. Our infant mortality rate is the worst among industrialized countries. Among developed countries we stand with South Africa as the only countries that do not provide their citizens with some universal standard and means of medical care.

With all due praise to an array of fine colleges and universities in this country, our educational system is in tatters. The gross disproportion of monies available among school districts as close to MIT as Chelsea and Lexington reflects our collective lack of concern for children's futures.

Themes of equality and equal opportunity, so crucial in a democratic society, have been eroded in the last decade. David Halberstam notes that in 1980, the top 1 percent of wealthy people controlled 6.5 percent of the nation's wealth. By the end of 1987, it had risen to almost 15 percent. It is a matter of common knowledge that the American corporations have not "lost" jobs to aggressive foreign competition as much as these same corporations have dismantled profitable enterprises to relocate in "more favorable" climates.

The examples of internal rot are legion. They are capable of being healed with renewed vigor and hope. The elites of our society claim the cost is too much, assuming an annual continuing $260-300 billion national security need. "The times," they argue, "are not opportune." Sounds very much to me like the clergy of Birmingham in 1963.

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Bernard J. Campbell, CSP is Catholic chaplain at MIT.