This past weekend, we celebrated the life of an extraordinary man – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was, as we know, a tireless crusader for the rights of the oppressed and less fortunate. A champion of equality and fairness. A courageous exemplar of the type of leadership that seeks to unify, not divide. A blessing to a country that was being pulled apart by the forces of war, poverty, racism, and injustice. More than anything, he was a man of character – courage, humility, love, compassion, wisdom, and temperance. These are the virtues that I have written about before. The traits that virtually every culture across time considered vital to the healthy functioning of society.
It is no coincidence, in my mind, that we celebrate the life of Dr. King at the very same time we watch the ignominious collapse of the current President – a man who represents the antithesis, in almost every way, of these cardinal virtues. To the same degree that Dr. King exuded courage, humility, love, compassion, wisdom, and temperance; almost every tweet, speech, and act of this President reflects a void (and, in many cases, the complete opposite) of these virtues. Such a breach of character is not confined to the outgoing President. Sadly, it is on display across the political spectrum, at all levels of government. Character decay has crept into our businesses and community institutions. There is no question. Character is on trial right now – in this country and across the world.
The trial is occurring while we face a set of monumental issues. How do we stop a global pandemic while preventing the collapse of a fragile economy? How do we address the continued structural roots of inequality without suppressing thoughtful debate and discussion? How do we protect against both internal and external threats to our national security while safeguarding the privacy interests of our citizens? How do we ensure widespread access to the right to vote and focus on restoring the integrity of our election processes? How do we honor and respect the sacrifice of the many men and women in blue while also reforming our policing practices to avoid the killings and intimidation of innocent people? How do we protect the freedoms of speech and the press while protecting against the use of social media platforms to spread hate and incite violence? These are just a subset of the many critical issues we face.
If you pay close attention to these issues, you will see that they require the effective resolution of complex dilemmas, which can only happen if we embrace the virtues exemplified by Dr. King. We will need the wisdom to see the paradoxical nature of complexity. The compassion to appreciate and respect those who differ from us. The courage to do what is right even when it’s not popular. And the self-control, embodied so notably by Dr. King, to engage with these issues with maturity and grace.
The upcoming impeachment trial, while undoubtedly important, is really just a sideshow. What’s really on trial is our values. Do we choose to honor the memory of Dr. King? Or do we succumb to a downward spiral of character decay? I choose the former. I choose to live by the words of Abraham Lincoln:
We are not enemies, but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
I choose character.