originally posted in 2008. I can think of nothing more relevant for today
Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.Today is the anniversary of one of the most significant public addresses in this nation's history. On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in Riverside Church in NYC to a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City, where he delivered an address entitled Beyond Vietnam -- A Time to Break Silence. Today I choose to honor the man by examining what he had to say, to encourage all t go to the link, listen to the speech or read it, and ponder the meaning of those words for us, here and now, in a time of yet another war we should not be fighting.
King acknowledged the appropriateness of a statement of the executive board of the organization he was addressing:
"A time comes when silence is betrayal."I chose that as my title because it reminds me of the timelessness of this speech.
I cannot easily summarize the sweep of King's words. This was not an ad hoc speech, but rather a carefuly considered and crafted statement, knowing the opprobrium he was calling down upon himself for publicly stepping into the disputes over Vietnam. The Tet Offensive that would finally convince the American people that the light at the end of the tunnel to which General Westmoreland kept referring was really an onrushing locomotive was still many months in the future. Yet Prophets call the nation to account even before it is ready. That is the burden they take, to help raise the awareness of the conscience of the nation. And King was a prophet.
King clearly knew the difficulty of the task upon which he was embarking. Perhaps if you read uninterrupted the 2nd through 4th paragraphs of this address you will grasp that difficulty, and the criticism to which he knew he was subjecting himself:
The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.King addressed his remarks to his own nation, looking back at the cost of the war, not only in Vietnam, but in the United State. He saw how the promise of the programs of the War on Poverty, which has seemed so bright and hopeful in 1965, were being devasted:
And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation's history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movements and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: "Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?" "Why are you joining the voices of dissent?" "Peace and civil rights don't mix," they say. "Aren't you hurting the cause of your people," they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.
Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.And here King begins to speak to us. Our all-volunteer military is far too often staffed by those whose only hope of advancement in life is the training and the post-service benefits offered in exchange for military service, and yet we see lives lost and broken, an administration that opposes the Webb-Hagel new GI Bill because it might make leaving the service too attractive (and thus prevent the administration from having sufficient bodies for its imperialistic adventures), and an economy so burdened by the expenses of a war for which the rich are not paying that increasingly the programs essential to the present and future health of this country are gutted. King was right in 1967, and his words apply today. Note what he says of our young servicemen at the time of Vietnam, that we were taking the poor and oppressed and seeing them die in disproportionate numbers. He noted the irony of seeing blacks die ostensibly for freedoms in Vietnam that they still lacked in the US, in the ghetto of the inner city in the North and in the rural poverty of the South.
King saw a direct connection between the violence in our inner cities and the violence we perpetuated overseas. He came to this awareness in his contacts with the young people responsible for that domestic violence and turmoil. And as one who has now spent more than a decade teaching adolescents I know how true it is that their behavior and reactions are influenced by what they perceive, and that if our actions contradict our words it will be the actions whose impact is greater. King had experienced the challenge of the questions raised by violent young men, and as his speech informs us
Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.He then responds to those who would criticize him for going beyond the brief of Civil Rights with these words:
In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: "To save the soul of America." We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:And of course we can all see this parallel with our actions in Iraq, and thus I rephrase King's words for our time: America's soul can never be saved so long as we are in Iraq as we are now, for it destroys the deepest hope of men, women, and children the world over
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath --
America will be!
Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
There are two paragraphs that might make some here uncomfortable, but I must offer them. King lived his life as an expression of his faith. His was a lived religious commitment. And much of the power of his message comes from that, and thus speaks to those in any time who truly seek to live the meaning of their own faith. His message has power for those whose ethical principles are for them shaped independently of religion, to be sure. But we must never forget the roots from which he sprung, and impact of his beliefs upon the path he chose to walk. And so these two paragraphs:
And finally, as I try to explain for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.I am forced by length to skip much of the speech. There is simply too much to quote, and it is often unfair and distorting to attempt to summarize, or to quote without providing a context. King rehearses the history of conflict in Vietnam. But a prophet calls his own nation to account, and three paragraphs in this section are critical, even if there are not EXACT parallels to what we are doing in now in Iraq. Let me merely offer them, and let you draw those connections you deem appropriate:
This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls "enemy," for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.King offers a series of five tasks specific to ending the conflict in Vietnam. But he goes further:
What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation's only noncommunist revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.
Part of our ongoing...part of our ongoing commitment might well express itself in an offer to grant asylum to any Vietnamese who fears for his life under a new regime which included the Liberation Front. Then we must make what reparations we can for the damage we have done. We must provide the medical aid that is badly needed, making it available in this country, if necessary. Meanwhile... meanwhile, we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must continue to raise our voices and our lives if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative method of protest possible.He was speaking to clergy, and reminding them of their moral responsibility to oppose the immoral US actions in Vietnam. We have not seen yet a similar ongoing commitment with respect to Iraq, perhaps because the death toll is lower, and we do not have a draft. But it is worth remembering that by the end of 1966, our death total in Iraq was less than 11,000 of the more than 58,000 Americans who would eventually die in that conflict. 1967 would by itself see more than that perish, 11,153. And the following year would be the worst of all - 16,589. The longer we remain the more will die, and perhaps instead of a massive invasion as we encountered during Tet this time it will be we who expand the conflict by bombing Iran.
And now comes the challenging part of the speech. It is challenging because it questions the basic assumptions on which so much of this nation operates. Let me again offer 3 paragraphs:
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality...and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing "clergy and laymen concerned" committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.
And so, such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
In 1957, a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years, we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisors in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.
It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin...we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
Note carefully that last sentence: When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
Perhaps that is enough extensive quoting. This address is simply so rich that is does a great injustice to do ought but encourage you to devour the entire thing, pondering as you go, and afterwards, the challenges with which it confronts you.
Let me offer a series of quotes from the remainder to convince you of its importance, and its timeliness:
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. . . .For all that King saw wrong in America and the world, he remained always an optimist, believing that the actions and commitments of people could make a positive difference. And this address, like his speech on August 28, 1963, and the one the day before his death which I discussed yesterday, ends with optimism. And if we are to heed his call, it would unfair of me not to end as he did. And I will.
We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. . . .
But first I must say more. It avails us little to look back at the wisdom and insight of those who have gone before if we merely hear or read their words, but ignore the import of those words. King called for a radical transformation. Too often as we reflect on his life and work we gloss over the radicalism of his message. We should remember that he was a prophet in the original Hebraic sense of that word, and that role requires one not only to comfort the afflicted but to afflict the comfortable. It is notable that he drew to him and his work perhaps that era's greatest expert on the Hebrew Prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with King. And others of deep spirituality and concern for the world also found a connection with King, whether they were enclosed monastics like Thomas Merton, or active Buddhists like the man whose work has continued to our own day, Thich Nhat Hanh
If we are to be true to King, if we really wish to be inspired, we will each find our own ways of applying his message and living up to his challenge in our own actions and words. Perhaps it will be to become less material, to be aware of all the costs, human and environmental, of the things we buy, the food we eat, the way we travel. We will seek to to change ourselves, and by those actions impress upon those who would be our political leaders the importance we place on such change, because we have begun it without leadership from above. Or perhaps from among us will arise those whose path will include such political leadership, including the willingness to speak truth to the American people, to challenge the media to examine more fully the meaning of political and moral action. Or as Gandhi, who so inspired King, told us You must be the change you wish to see in the world.
And now, let me end as King ended, with his words, which included the words of another:
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message -- of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.Peace.
As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:
Once to every man and nation comes a moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth and Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever 'twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet 'tis truth alone is strong
Though her portions be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace.
If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.