As I drove to the Duke restaurant this afternoon, Talk of the Nation was my soundtrack, as is often the case. I happened to join the program just as Tavis Smiley began talking about his program MLK: A Call Beyond Conscience, which looks at Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” that he delivered at Riverside Church in New York City one year to the day of his assassination. Though Neal Conan timed the interview to coincide with the broadcast, that it falls in the middle of Holy Week seems worth noting as well, even though it was unintentional.
One of the most moving aspects of Jesus’ journey to the Cross is that he never responded to violence with violence, though he had opportunity over and over again. One of the things I find in the Empty Tomb is the promise that peace outlasts violence. Any time we choose violence as a solution — out of frustration or pride or power or convenience – whether we’re talking Vietnam or Iraq or Guantanamo, we choose to trust a fallacy that will only lead to deeper conflict. We choose to be cynics. We choose to sell ourselves short.
King’s decision to speak out cost him deeply, but he knew the cost before he spoke. Listen to what he said:
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.
As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1954; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission — a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.” This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I’m speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men — for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?
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.
In the middle of all of the discussions and arguments that are going on about our growing national deficit and our need to cut back spending, the conversation stays stuck on cutting social programs, when slashing our defense budget hardly enters the discourse. We spend a ridiculous amount to prepare ourselves to be the biggest, baddest SOBs in the valley of the shadow; we have convinced ourselves that being the most violent will somehow make us safer. It hasn’t worked. We may think of ourselves as the most powerful, yet we live motivated primarily by fear. We have more weapons than anyone else in the world and we continue, year after year, to spend more on defense than anyone else in the world and we are not safer or saner or even more secure. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result, we have proven ourselves insane, driven crazy by our fear while abandoning our faith.
At the risk of quoting King too much, I go back to the speech:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
Imagine the explosion had their been twenty-four hour news channels in 1967.
We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”
Imagine what could happen if we took these words to heart in 2010, even as we follow Jesus to the Cross.