During February, Americans celebrate Black History Month. In light of repressive governments, such as the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the right of freedom and equality that many African-Americans fought for, and in some cases died for, has profound and continued meaning.
Although government support is essential, real freedom and equality can't actually be legislated. Freedom from prejudice and tyranny needs to be established in the heart of each individual. Sometimes a particular event may forward this progress. For example, Rosa Parks's refusal to move to the back of the bus - where African-Americans were supposed to sit in the days of overt racism - triggered the civil rights revolution. One person had the courage to say, "Enough!" And others joined in that refusal, beginning a movement that would transform the nation.
Those who are not victims of discrimination have also done their part by standing up for the others. Many examples of such courage were exhibited after Sept. 11, when people who were not Muslims stood watch over Muslim homes, places of worship, and businesses to protect them from harm.
Both groups can accomplish much, if they work together. But permanent change demands that new visions of justice emerge from people's hearts. For me, one of the most moving signs made by male African-American civil rights protesters was the one with the message, "I am a man." In other words, I am a human being - I have equality in the eyes of God. I have intelligence, love, goodness.
To me, those weren't just demands for the right to sit in the front of the bus, to eat in places where formerly only white people could eat. They were requiring that I - and others - recognize that humanity has a common bond. While we may be very different culturally and politically, we all love, aspire, and long for justice, no matter what our race, ethnic background, gender, or religious beliefs.
In today's gender-conscious society, perhaps the signs would read, "I am a human being." The essential message is the same. The Bible takes this idea to a higher level, saying that each of us, male or female, is spiritual, made in God's likeness, and that this is how we are to be judged. It promises that we are loved with an everlasting love (see Jer. 31:3) that transcends human conditions and heritage.
The key is that those Biblical statements aren't meant to pacify us into waiting for future equality and rights. Rather, they are designed to energize us into working for these rights now. While our prayers may lead us to take direct human action, each of us can help by resisting the temptation to discriminate in thought or deed, in large things or small.
Recently, I was driving across a section of New York State where there is a prison. At a gas station, an African-American man asked me how to get to the town where the prison is located. At first, I assumed that he was actually trying to get to the prison, not to the town, and I almost put this thought into action. Then I realized how ignorant that was. What right did I have to assume he was wanting to visit someone at the prison? This shows how subtle such prejudices can be even in someone who is not consciously prejudiced.
Each time we treat those of different races or backgrounds with respect, our actions create a kind of echo across the world. They affirm the value of each individual, and this is truly the right of the man that God created, male and female. Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, wrote in "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures": "Discerning the rights of man, we cannot fail to foresee the doom of all oppression. Slavery is not the legitimate state of man. God made man free" (pg. 227).
When we fully discern the rights of man - the right to be valued regardless of material attributes such as gender and race, the right to express intelligence and goodness - then oppression, no matter what form it takes, is truly doomed. Given the world's resistance to equality and justice, we still have a way to go. But every day will bring us new opportunities to look oppression in the eye and say, "You are doomed, because God's man - the man I and my neighbors are - is totally and wholly free."