Dialect of the Human Heart
"Don't tell me, show me!"
At a recent dinner with friends, one topic touched upon was changes in our home state. Citing an example of what once was, Keith, a former Iowan, referenced Governor Bob Ray’s 1979 speech to the Disciples of Christ Assembly. I had to admit, I wasn’t familiar with the speech. My excuse: In the late ’70s, I was newly married and living in Minnesota.
I’ve always had a fondness for rhetoric… good, old-fashioned oratory, often hovering near the intersection of politics and religion. So, upon first learning about it, the Ray example seemed promising. “So, where did this speech take place?” I asked. “Oh, I don’t know, Missouri I think.” “Kansas City? St. Louis?” “Yeah, probably one of those,” at which point, the subject was dropped.
The next day, I went searching. Although I couldn’t find Ray’s text, I found multiple references. For instance, Bill Simbro, the Register’s religion reporter, in an article published years later, described it as “more of a sermon than a political speech.” Sadly, I couldn’t find the original Simbro story, probably a user error.
Before sharing an excerpt of Ray’s text, a bit of foreground. Three months earlier, a speech addressing the same topic -- humanitarian care for refugees -- was delivered NOT by an Iowan, but by a native Minnesotan, then U.S. Vice President. Walter Mondale was long a favorite of mine, perhaps rooted in his boyhood. When Walter was in elementary school, his clergy family moved to Elmore, Minnesota, on the Iowa-Minnesota state line, 60 miles west -- and two miles north -- of my boyhood (and our current) home.
Thanks to the Minnesota Historical Society, the text of Mondale’s remarks is readily accessible. An excerpt, from the U.N. Conference on Indochinese Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland, July, 1979:
“Once again the countries of the world turn to the United Nations. When problems touch the whole human community, no other forum provides a vision more encompassing. When national interests conflict and collide, no institution convenes us with greater moral authority. The United Nations is often criticized, and sometimes even maligned. But the common ground it provides us deserves our thanks and our praise.
Some tragedies defy the imagination. Some misery so surpasses the grasp of reason that language itself breaks beneath the strain. Instead, we grasp for metaphors. Instead, we speak the inaudible dialect of the human heart. Today we confront such a tragedy.
In virtually all the world's languages, desperate new expressions have been born. ‘A barbed-wire bondage,’ ‘an archipelago of despair,’ ‘a flood-tide of human misery’: with this new coinage our language is enriched, and our civilization is impoverished. ‘The boat people.’ ‘The land people.’ The phrases are new; their precedent in the annals of shame is not.
Forty-one years ago this week, another international conference on Lake Geneva concluded its deliberations. Thirty-two 'nations of asylum' convened at Evian to save the doomed Jews of Nazi Germany and Austria. At stake were both human lives and the decency and self-respect of the civilized world. If each nation had agreed that day to take in 17,000 Jews at once, every Jew in the Reich could have been saved.
At Evian, they began with high hopes. But they failed the test of civilization. The civilized world hid in the cloak of legalisms. Two nations said they had reached the saturation point for Jewish refugees. Four nations said they would accept experienced agricultural workers only. One would only accept immigrants who had been baptized. Three declared intellectuals and merchants to be undesirable new citizens. One nation feared that an influx of Jews would arouse antisemitic feelings. One delegate said: ‘As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.’
As delegates left Evian, Hitler goaded ‘the other world’ for ‘oozing sympathy for the poor, tormented people, but remaining hard and obdurate when it comes to helping them.’ Days later, the ‘final solution to the Jewish problem’ was conceived, and soon the night closed in. Let us not re-enact their error. Let us not be the heirs to their shame.
To alleviate the tragedy in Southeast Asia, we all have a part to play. … We must work together, or the suffering will mount. Unless we all do more, the risk of fresh conflict will arise, and the stability of Southeast Asia will erode. Unless this conference gives birth to new commitments, and not simply new metaphors, we will inherit the scorn of Evian. It is a time for action, not words. [Seven steps outlined, before concluding…]
Our children will deal harshly with us if we fail. The conference at Evian forty-one years ago took place amidst the same comfort and beauty we enjoy at our own deliberations today. One observer at those proceedings -- moved by the contrast between the setting and the task -- said this: ‘These poor people and these great principles seem so far away. To one who has attended other conferences on Lake Geneva, the most striking thing on the eve of this one is that the atmosphere is so much like the others.’
Let us not be like the others. Let us renounce that legacy of shame. Let us reach beyond metaphor. Let us honor the moral principles we inherit. Let us do something meaningful -- something profound -- to stem this misery. We face a world problem. Let us fashion a world solution.
History will not forgive us if we fail. History will not forget us if we succeed.”
* * *
Powerful words from one not generally acknowledged for his eloquence. Several months later, Governor Ray traveled to St. Louis to address the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), his denomination. His topic that fall day was the same as the Vice President’s. Ray opted to play off Missouri’s slogan, perhaps also channeling a bit of Eliza Doolittle. But first he mentioned Pope John Paul II’s recent stop in Iowa and his papal message that Judeo-Christians must seek to alleviate world suffering and eliminate human rights violations.
Having just returned from China, Ray noted that country’s overwhelming poverty while observing that life in China “was like a walk through the park compared with our last stop,” at Thailand refugee camps. Like Vice President Mondale, he compared the situation confronting Indochinese refugees with the plight of Jews during the Holocaust and, like Mondale, decried the world’s missed opportunity. Then, his stirring conclusion:
I believe that we can never live with a clear conscience if we turn our backs on dying human beings who cry out for a touch of life. There is no way I can describe the misery and human suffering and anguish of these people — God’s children. It’s indescribable. But try if you will to imagine what it would be like to run, hide and scramble through wet and rough terrain for weeks, day after day, in an attempt to escape communist torture and death.
Add to that the fact that you were leaving your home, your belongings, your family, or that your spouse, or children or parents had already been killed. And, that if you reached a border, you would have no assurance you wouldn’t be thrown right back into the path of the pursuers. We're talking not where these people are going to live — but whether they are going to live.
As we meet here tonight in Missouri, the 'Show Me State,' I sincerely believe that Jesus is saying to our church: ‘Don't tell me of your concerns for the poor, the disenfranchised, the underprivileged, the unemployed; show me! Don't tell me of your concerns for the rejected, the prisoner, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless; show me! Don't tell me of your concerns for these people; you have a chance to save their lives; show me! Don't tell me how Christian you are; show me! Show me!’”
* * *
According to one account, Ray’s speech “turned the tide at the convention, and the Assembly voted to send aid to the refugees.”
Empathy, decency, compassion. A mighty hooray for Vice President Mondale and Governor Ray. Despite the plummeting depths of more recent political discourse, their magnificent words remind us of society’s boundless humanitarian potential. But only if we summon it.
I’m a member of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative, along with these talented people: