- - Thursday, January 21, 2016

Those of us who were part of the diverse and large congregation that filled the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on the Martin Luther King holiday Monday for the King Center’s 48th annual Commemorative Service were not weary at the end of a service that lasted more than four and a half hours. On the contrary, we were energized, as I have been after each of these services that I’ve attended for over a decade.

We were energized by some of the most soaring oratory in America — consistent with the King tradition — regarding justice, peace and nonviolence. The message each year is as consistent as it is persuasive: the dream of the Rev. Martin Luther King places obligations on us to preserve the progress we’ve already made and to complete the unfinished business of that dream. Equality and nonviolence are fragile goods in our society, and promoting these goods requires an attentiveness to the signs of the times and the ability to adapt one’s efforts to fight on new battlefronts for the same age-old principles.

Along these lines, Brianna Smith, a middle school student from the Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, brought the congregation to its feet as she declared that “we cannot stand for freedom for one group of people while withholding it from others.” She reminded us that tragedies like the death of Trayvon Martin are about something very basic — “his right to live.” We must respond, she declared, to “the devaluation of African-American lives.”

To that I say amen, and also follow it up with the observation that the need to respond to the devaluation of African-American lives is a corollary of another need, namely, to respond to the devaluation of human lives. This, too, was asserted in various ways by other speakers on Monday, who said that the Beloved Community is not possible without each and every one of us. The keynote speaker, the Rev. William J. Barber II, labeled as a “heretical notion” the idea “that some people matter more than others,” and after naming a litany of evils, summarized his point by saying, “If you’re killing human beings, it’s just wrong.”

The message, the principles, and the dream of King are not only consistent and persuasive; their power lies also in the fact that they are trans-partisan. They rise above and they undergird all that is good in the diverse political parties, platforms, and policies in our nation. And herein lies both a promise and a tragedy.

The promise is that these principles really can unite us, and really can form a blueprint for building a better America. Bernice King reminded the congregation that a few years ago, Time Magazine called her father Martin the “Architect of the 21st Century.” She was astonished, she recalled, that he was being called the “architect” of a century in which he never lived — but that’s because, as she explained, he did what architects do. He created a blueprint. And it is up to us to take it and build the new century according to it. That’s the promise.

The tragedy is that we still allow partisan politics to divide and diminish that promise. I’m not saying that partisan division is in itself wrong or necessarily harmful. On the contrary, it’s essential to healthy political life. Let there be different ideas about policies and programs, so that robust debate, and trial and error, can reveal what the best public policies are. But these healthy disagreements should be about how to best implement the principles on which we do agree. The division should not be about the principles themselves: freedom, equality, nonviolence, the Beloved Community.

I am a national leader in the effort to end violence against children who are still in the wombs of their mothers, and to restore their equal protection before the law. And our movement, the effort to end abortion, is having its major national event this Friday in Washington D.C. — the annual “March for Life.” The speeches I will give that day will be very, very similar to the speeches I heard on Monday. I too will affirm, as I have for decades, that “we cannot stand for freedom for one group of people while withholding it from others.” I too will declare that it is a “heretical notion” to believe “that some people matter more than others.” The hundreds of thousands of Americans among whom I will march on Friday will declare, as was said on Monday, that “If you’re killing human beings, it’s just wrong.”

Why, then, would we be hard-pressed to find so many of the leaders and activists who were at Monday’s national service present at Friday’s national march, and vice-versa? And how is it that although the soaring oratory at both events will be so similar in its affirmation of nonviolence and equality, that in the hundreds of inspiring speeches I’ve listened to at the King commemorative service in Atlanta over the years, I have heard only one fleeting reference to the need to protect children in the womb?

The answer is because of our political divide. We all claim to hold to the same principles, but still allow partisan loyalties to create a blind spot to the violence done to children in the womb some 3,000 times daily in America by the abortion procedure that literally tears them limb from limb. Jose Caldern, president of the Hispanic Federation, in a beautiful speech on Monday, pleaded for the children who have no voice as they seek to cross the border into America. I say amen. And by the same token, let’s plead for the children who have no voice as they seek to cross the border of the womb.

To my fellow citizens, I say, let’s maintain and respect our diversity — be who you are politically, religiously, and culturally — but as you advocate for justice, include the children in the womb. Someday, perhaps Monday’s crowd in Atlanta and Friday’s crowd in Washington can cry out for justice all together.

Father Frank Pavone is the national director of Priests for Life and president of the National Pro-Life Religious Council.

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