The Common Good

Tuesday's Elections Don't Change the Fierce Urgency of Now

In the wake of Tuesday's elections where the Democrats lost governor's races in New Jersey and in Virginia, some observers are advising President Obama to scale back his agenda. Health care and energy and education and banking reform and war in Iraq still and possible escalation of our military commitment in Afghanistan is too much. It is much too much. I say: do not listen to this, Mr. President. You were right to remind us of the fierce urgency of Now.

Martin Luther King Jr. reminded the nation of this in his famous "I Have a Dream Speech." He said:

We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.

In August of 1963, King was talking about economic justice and racial equality. He said: "Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children." Health care is a human right. That health care ought to be available to "all of God's children" is a matter of justice. This cannot wait because people in the United States are dying every day because of the lack of health care. Thousands die every year. Every day, people in this country go bankrupt because of medical bills. This is not so in other industrialized nations, and it ought not be the case in the United States. Great Recession notwithstanding, the United States is still the strongest economy in the world.

In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," King wrote about "a tragic misconception of time." His critics said African-Americans were "in too great of a religious hurry." They thought that "the teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." King rejected this logic. He reasoned that time is not neutral, that progress is not inevitable, but it requires effort. Without this effort "time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation." He said further: "We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right."

Universal health care is right. It is justice. Health-care reform is necessary for helping the economy get back on track, for giving businesspeople the information they need to plan for the future and to create jobs. It is necessary for bringing down the nation's debt in the long-run. More important, every challenge the nation faces affects the everyday lives of people. It is not hyperbolic to say that life and death hang in the balance.

Our moral identity as a nation is at stake. As we engage these difficult questions, larger questions about our responsibilities to each other are asked and answered. The fierce urgency of now requires creative and courageous leadership from all of our leaders on every level of government. This is what citizens deserve and what voters demand.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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