Joe Barrera: Do We Still Have a Conscience?

This is the season when we celebrate the voice of conscience. This celebration is unique in the world, and springs from our spiritual inheritance. As we understand our history, we were founded by people of conscience, dissenters who fled the oppression of church and state in order to remain faithful to their beliefs. We honor this inheritance of freedom of conscience. It has a name. We call it American Exceptionalism. We feel that it makes us better than other nations. The vision has faded but so powerful is the legacy that there is still a memory of it, still a twinge of conscience which prods us to pay homage to our founding ideals. Heroes of conscience continue to spring up in this country. They are Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature,” born to fight the dark forces of fear and discord. We are perpetually torn between conscience, the insistent voice of reason and light, and the devil of fear, which for us always takes the form of racism and xenophobia. It is the eternal war in our souls. The battle manifests in our belief that our purpose in the world is to be “a light unto the nations.” To be this light is to bear a heavy burden, which we carry willingly. But it can be self-destructive. We are torn by repeated struggles, the endless cycles of progression and regression in our history. These occur when we perceive to have either succeeded or failed in our mission of enlightenment. At the moment we have failed. We are caught up in the cycle of regression. We are moving backward.

Martin Luther King

In their latest visitation, progression and regression have been ferociously fighting since the 1960s. The ebb and flow is ceaseless. The decisive battle has not yet been fought. In the titanic struggle a better angel appeared. The darkness killed him, but his life continues. Because of him we know that regression will give way to progression. The hero said this about conscience: “Cowardice asks the question, Is It Safe? Expediency asks the question, Is It Politic? And Vanity comes along and asks the question, Is It Popular? But Conscience asks the question, Is It Right? The Ultimate Measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge, moments of great crisis and controversy.”

This would be one more moment of great crisis for him. If he were alive today he would be down on the Mexican border, rescuing the 13,000 children torn from their parents’ arms by the U.S. government and caged like animals. “We are responsible for that atrocity,” he would say to us. “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” He would condemn the racism he knew so well, still directed against his own people, and at the same time non-violently lie down and stop the latter-day slave ships, the dangerously overcrowded vans ferrying desperate immigrants to slave-like jobs. He would stand in front of the wall of shame and intone, “Tear down this wall!” He would fearlessly defend the asylum seekers, reminding us that we have laws granting them the right to seek refuge in the land of the free. He would call all of us, Whites, African Americans, Latinos/Chicanos, to stand with him in conscience. And we would respond, knowing that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is not just a hero for Black folks but for everyone of us.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.