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January 17, 2005
The children had made paper chains of colored construction paper, and they wore them to the service.

Why did the people wear chains? I had asked. And the first answers were troubling: To keep them from hurting people. To keep them from doing bad things.

But they didn't hurt anybody.

They thought a moment. And then a little girl said, So they couldn't get away. Because they were slaves. Then they remembered all remembered what they'd learned in school, and they had lots to say about Dr. King.

The subdeacon was shackled with a metal chain: halfway through the gospel reading, she wound half her chain around my wrist, so that we were shackled together. As each child received communion, he broke off his chain and placed it on the altar. Last of all, the two of us released our chain and threw it down. It slid along the mosaic floor and came to rest next to a little girl in an aisle seat.

What do the chains look like now? I asked the children from behind the heap of brightly colored paper rings. Flowers! several little voices called back. Yes, that's exactly what they looked like: the altar was heaped with paper flowers, flowers that minutes ago had been symbolic shackles.

Was it a good lesson? It was easy to remove the paper shackles. Just rip them off, and they become pretty paper flowers. It was even easy to remove the metal chain -- just unloop it from your wrist and you're free.

Real shackles were harder to lose. Freedom didn't come with emancipation -- the law can only precede a change in heart: it never causes one. The oppressed must claim their freedom in order to have it, and the oppressor must release his grip, something he will not choose to do on his own.

At the later service, the sermon was different: no paper chains. Just a walk through memory: all these things happened forty years ago. Forty years! Dr. King was young, we see now -- we didn't know he was young then, because we were young, and young people don't really know they're young. Those times were hard, we remembered: pundits who say that today's America is the most polarized we've ever seen must have been somewhere else in the 1960s.

He didn't live to be old. He'd be just my husband's age, now: they were born in the same year. What would a Dr. King in his seventies think of us now? Would he be discouraged at our flaccidity in the pursuit of justice? At our whining self-absorption? He wasn't easily discouraged. He knew that moral laziness was a more formidable enemy than brutality could ever be, and that the materialism of our culture represented evil burrowing from within.

After the service, bits of paper chain were everywhere. I walked from the sanctuary to the sacristy and back again with armloads of the bright paper rings, and stooped to pick them up from the floor where children had dropped them and forgotten about them. It took a lot longer to clean the last of them up than it had to break them in two.
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