The Power and Powerlessness of Conscience: Selma and Kyiv

March 7, 1965, six hundred demonstrators were beaten as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, creating what Martin Luther King Jr. would famously call “a shining moment in the conscience of man.”  Fifty-seven years after Bloody Sunday we find ourselves facing a long night, darkened further by the betrayal of conscience as a cruel and brutal assault is faced by the people of Ukraine. 

Selma and Kyiv are very different, of course, and even more separated now by time and technology.  Dr. King, who was not present on Bloody Sunday,  knew that the sight of the beaten men and women like John Lewis and Amelia Boynton had curdled the blood of many in the United States and the rising outcry would force concessions from the authorities that sought to keep the demonstrators down. 

Even though they were surrounded by fear and continuing racist reprisals, by the time Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would step off together in the final march from Selma, there was every reason to believe that they would pass safely, triumphantly and nonviolently to their destination in Montgomery and hold new ground in the raging war for the rights of Black Americans.  As long as Dr. King would serve as the face of the movement, conscience would be the main ammunition in the fight.

In Ukraine, the main ammunition, of course, is ammunition.  Facing superior firepower of armed and relentless invaders, the Ukrainian people, both military and civilians, have fought back with firearms and improvised devices, anti-aircraft weapons, and tractors.  No symbolic stands… even when unarmed people press forward at tanks, the goal is to fight or make the enemy surrender in the face of such determination.  Landmark bridges are not for crossing, but for detonating in the hopes of slowing the Russian forces or for sheltering those who flee as missiles rain down.  The injuries and deaths can not be counted let alone personalized each time.  The Russian soldiers have no option to just step aside like the Alabama law enforcement or like the Ku Klux Klan, disappear back into the crowd, but suffer casualties and get sent home to be buried. 

Ukraine is not the only place in which people’s lives have been reduced to bare survival, facing bullets, famine, disease, or even worse abuse.  Wars for territory, ethnic hatred, and to fill power vacuums are often waged with relatively little international attention. A combination of media willingness, availability, and increasingly unhealthy access to streams of information has made Russia’s merciless attack on its neighbor impossible to ignore across a large stretch of the world.  The sympathy of onlookers, though it is found everywhere, does very little for the embattled defenders or to slow the implacable attackers because Ukraine’s tormentor, Vladimir Putin, has ignored everything but the power that can actually be wielded against him.  Our conscience may be kindled, but there is no way for it to shine against an abyss from which even light cannot escape.

Personally, I have trouble sleeping looking at such horrors that I am powerless to affect. It’s hard to imagine how those who do have that power can sleep at all.  But lack of sleep does even less than conscience on its own. 

Facing this paradox, I turn to what I can do. Donation (I choose which is helping all refugees with resources for escape and resettling), prayer for the sake of finding strength even in powerlessness, and searching for meaning and Torah where it can be found.  Today, from the turn of phrase from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the bloody day that inspired him.

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