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Channeling Martin Luther King Jr.: What Obama should give Hu

Channeling Martin Luther King Jr.: What Obama should give Hu

Most years during the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend, I re-read a few of his sermons, as a way of reflecting on his legacy. This year, I read a passage in one of those sermons that seems especially timely:

Christianity insists that man is an end because he is a child of God, made in God’s image.  Man is more than a producing animal guided by economic forces; he is a being of spirit, crowned with glory and honor, endowed with the gift of freedom."

King titled this sermon "How should a Christian view Communism?" and in it he distinguished between the communist and Christian views of the human person — the latter holding that all human beings are created in the divine image and thus "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," in the words of the Declaration of Independence. Though King’s primary devotion in his too-short life was to the civil rights struggle in the United States, he constantly connected this effort with the universal aspirations of all human beings to realize in fact this liberty and dignity. And as he spoke out against the human rights depredations of communist governments, he also condemned the hypocrisy of his beloved America in fighting against communism abroad while denying basic rights at home to a class of its own citizens. 

The communist ideal largely perished with the end of the Cold War, and exists now only in a few flickering embers in isolated outposts such as North Korea. But one of communism’s cardinal flaws — this belief that human beings are subservient in value to the State — persists still today in too many authoritarian nations.

This past week alone witnessed considerable ferment in the cause of freedom. The news was not all good. In its invaluable global assessment of each country, Freedom House found 2010 to be the fifth consecutive year of retrenchment for human rights and democracy. The proximate cause is the persistence of authoritarian governments who see their citizens as mere subjects of the State, but the report is also an indictment of sorts on the democratic governments of the world — including the Obama administration — for doing too little to support liberty beyond their own borders.

Yet in the same week that Freedom House issued its grim assessment, other signs told a better story. In an act unprecedented in the modern Arab world, the people of Tunisia rose up and rejected the autocratic rule of President Zine al-Abadine Ben Ali. And in a Middle East speech rather unprecedented for the Obama administration, Secretary Clinton traveled to Qatar to deliver a bracing call for reform, progress, and yes, freedom in the Arab world. Nor were these concerns confined to one region, as the next day she issued a stern and specific exhortation to China to respect the political and religious rights of its people. In this same week, President Obama began taking tentative steps to put deeds behind his words as he met at the White House with a group of activists dedicated to improving human rights in China, in advance of President Hu Jintao’s state visit.

Does all of this signal a tidal shift in the sea of liberty? A few anecdotes from one week are too little and too soon to tell. As notable as the president’s ouster in Tunisia was, the ongoing instability, violence, and rapid power shifts from the prime minister to the speaker of parliament foretell an uncertain future, and are a reminder of the fragility of democratic transitions.  Moreover, as much as the people of Tunisia sent a jolt of inspiration across the region, the persistence of autocratic regimes in Arab countries testifies to their resilience in resisting reform. And as welcome as these latest gestures from President Obama and Secretary Clinton are, they come after two damaging years of comparative indifference by the administration to human rights and democracy — an indifference that was as dispiriting to global democracy activists as it was reassuring to their oppressive governments. 

Yet it is never too late to do the right thing. And this week of honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s life provides occasion for rededication to his legacy as well, especially as we have a president who embodies much of what King envisioned.   

As my Shadow Government colleague Mike Green pointed out in his excellent preview of the Hu visit, China’s imprisonment of democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo means that the White House meeting this week will be "our first summit (indeed, our first state visit) between a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a world leader who is imprisoning another Nobel Peace Prize laureate." Martin Luther King Jr. also won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1964. So here’s an idea for President Obama this week, as a gesture on behalf of human rights, religious freedom, and China’s imprisoned Nobel Peace Laureate: Why not present President Hu with a book of King’s sermons?