Notes From the Burn Intensive Care Unit

A new op-ed, published on the Common Dreams website


My patient “Julia” was suffering. She had been severely burned in a house fire and could not move or speak. Bandages covered her skin grafts, her face was swollen beyond recognition, and her eyes were taped shut.

We gave her antibiotics and antifungals and she clung to life.

Julia had been working a low-paying job at a convenience store to support her children. Previously homeless, she was sleeping in an overcrowded apartment. An unattended candle had started the fire.

How to bear witness to Julia’s suffering in the intensive care unit, while addressing the social inequalities which brought her to the brink of death?

In December 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. announced a plan to bring together poor people from across America for a new march on Washington. The Poor People’s Campaign was developed to demand better education, jobs, and housing, and an end to poverty, racism, and militarism. King wrote that “America is at a crossroads of history, and it is critically important, for us as a nation and a society, to choose a new path and move upon it with resolution and courage.”

As we enter 2018, the world faces a similar crossroads of history. With the possibility of nuclear war with North Korea, it is evident that humanity is facing a danger unlike any danger that has ever existed. And with the GOP tax bill, huge tax breaks are being given to the rich, while taxes increase on low- and middle- income people like Julia.

Will Americans stay silent while the United States becomes a country in which billionaires control our political system, families live in homeless shelters, and kids die from preventable diseases? Will we stay silent while nuclear war erupts and the whole world catches on fire?

To save the heart and soul of our democracy, America needs a radical revolution of values. An ecumenical, interfaith, “Moral Revival,” where Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, secular humanism, agnosticism, atheism and every belief system are accepted and respected. A social movement where hate and violence are unacceptable.

Fifty years after Dr. King’s announcement, we can find hope in the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival, which was launched in Washington D.C. on December 4. The campaign is calling for an end to systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and America’s war economy, including our dangerous dependence on nuclear weapons.

In order to engage our family, friends, and colleagues in the campaign, we must change our ways of thinking.

In 1967, Dr. King wrote, in the Trumpet of Conscience, “There is nothing wrong with a traffic law which says you have to stop for a red light. But when a fire is raging, the fire truck goes right through that red light, and normal traffic had better get out of its way. Or, when a man is bleeding to death, the ambulance goes through those red lights at top speed… Disinherited people all over the world are bleeding to death from deep social and economic wounds. They need brigades of ambulance drivers who will have to ignore the red lights of the present system until the emergency is solved. Massive civil disobedience is a strategy for social change which is at least as forceful as an ambulance with its siren on full.”

A half-century later, there is a fire raging for the poor of this country. But Americans are waking up and joining the Poor People’s Campaign. People are saying, we will be ambulance drivers and will put our bodies on the line. We will engage in forty days of nonviolent moral action starting on Mother’s Day 2018.

Let us build a social movement and save the soul of America. We can live with courage rather than fear. We can create a world for our children based on love and justice.

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