There is a time when silence become betrayal…© Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam.
I have often surmised that nothing is as good as we remember it to be, and nothing is as bad we remember it to be. Our memories deceive us as we recollect the “good old days” or some “golden era”. This recollection of times passed is a singularly selfish endeavor in as much that surely the good old days for some were not the good old days for others, nor are they remembered quite as exactly.
This seems to happen more often than not when we recall the lives of men and women who have gone before us. We eschew the character of the individual, leaving behind the more pleasant residues of their personalities which is sometimes beneficial to the individual. However this selective recollection can also be detrimental to the legacy and lessons that can be extrapolated from that individuals life and to ourselves.
This is never more prevalent than in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Every year on January 17th and in February during “Black History Month”, Dr.King goes through a “santaclausification” of his life work.
We are treated to numerous soundbites of what some consider the peak of his public ministry, his “I Have A Dream” speech at the Washington Monument. We recollect his bravery, his intellect, and his deft abilities of elocution.
Of course, one would not be wrong to remember him for all of these things. However, in remembering selectively we rob ourselves of the fullness of Dr. King’s legacy, and also the lessons we can derive from it.
What unsettling times America finds itself in. America is currently engaged in fighting two wars on two different fronts costing the American taxpayers over a trillion dollars and counting, mass unemployment rates hovering at around 9.1%, Wall Street brokers and banks ripping off the economy and then getting bailed out (twice) by the very taxpayers they were ripping off, the mortgage crisis, gross inequality of wealth with 1-2% of Americans owning 90% of the nations wealth, a prison industrial complex that is overly represented by minority groups, an unjust “justice system” that has laws in place like the “3 strikes you’re out law” and the “Rockefeller” laws that significantly impact minority groups and the poor, the rise of the right wing in the form of “The Tea Party”, continued cuts in social and education programs in our schools and the awarding of the President of the United States the Nobel Peace Prize all while he contemplated troop increases in Afghanistan and troops remained in Iraq. These are troubled and perplexing times indeed and yet if can remember rightly, and completely, we see Dr. King’s legacy speaking to us in the present.
“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice”
The last year of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life was the most depressing time of his life because of a speech. So depressing in fact that he battled with continuing his public presence in the Civil Rights movement. He continually suffered bouts of depression, isolation, and loneliness, over the course of the next year continuing on to Memphis which ultimately led to his assassination. A speech. Not the time he spent isolated in incarceration in Albany, not his time spent facing the firehoses, dogs, and billy clubs of Governor George Wallace’s henchmen: Bull Connor and James Clark in the state of Alabama -but because of a speech. A speech that is one of the least known and not recollected in the midst of the Santa Clausization of his life and legacy, but one that provides us with the most insight into who America is TODAY and where America will be TOMORROW.
“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.”
That speech was entitled “A Time To Break Silence:The War in Vietnam” and Dr. King speaks out against the war in Vietnam and the effects that it is having on the poor both in America and Vietnam, and the minority groups who still had yet to achieve freedom and equality in their hometowns stateside. It is a speech in which Dr. King became the embodiment of a conscience gone awry bringing to its fullness the lessons bequeathed to him by the God he worshipped and served, and by the lessons he had learned on the journey that was the Civil Rights Movement, speaking those words that others may have silently said to themselves. He bravely, in the face of strong public opinion listened to his conscience and called the American government the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and then challenged it, believing in the hope of a dream that once was and compelling it to reset its course to a path of social justice and equality.
The fact that this speech is mostly unknown is not because of its sheer lack of brilliance, intellect, or the eloquence of his delivery but because of the unpopularity of the content within it. A speech so unpopular that after giving it, Dr. King spent the last year of his life out of public favor. He had a disapproval rating of 72% in what was termed “white America” and his approval rating was below 55% in the black community. His own organization, the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) turned their back on him – producing a letter for public consumption vehemently disagreeing with his stance against the war in Vietnam.
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam (Afghanistan). I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak of the — for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam (Afghanistan). I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.
So why is this important you ask? The danger in a selective memory is that we then begin to add on, or create these false representations of people or their thoughts or ideals, and we then begin to use them to support our own aggrandizing agendas. Someone once said “Men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities and in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond”. It is something akin to telling yourself a lie until you believe it. No matter how untrue. It seems that America has now moved beyond just a caricature and it is now using Dr. King’s legacy to support its own ideals- no matter how incompatible they are in principle.
A Pentagon official recently stated ““I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack.”
You can read that story here: http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalpunch/2011/01/pentagon-official-suggests-mlk-would-have-supported-current-wars.html
And the television pundit Glenn Beck stated in August that his conservative movement was rallying the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.
Yet neither one of these commentaries align with Dr. King’s speech against Vietnam, and his very publicly stated philosophies on the poor, minorities and the disenfranchised. Per his acceptance speech for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize “three larger problems which grow out of man’s ethical infantilism: …racial injustice, poverty, and war.”
We have to remember rightly and that in a manner that is an accurate depiction of the past and the personalities portrayed in it. It is important not just for posterities, and more than just to remember Dr. King as he would want us to, in the fullness of his person, but for OURSELVES for it is in the past that we remember who we are, who we were, and who we can be without deceiving ourselves. It is in a correct recollection of the past, even those things that may be unpleasant to remember, that we can see where we turned wrong and then right ourselves. Anything less than that and our egos will betray us and absolve ourselves of any responsibility.
Dr Martin Luther King was not a war hawk, or a supporter of any conservative movement unless it involved the conservation and cultivation of truth, justice and equality for all. He certainly was not perfect and he himself said in the Pultizer prize winning book “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the SCLC” by David Garrow that “the movement shaped me more than I shaped the movement”. He was the sometimes reluctant prophet bearing witness, who like Moses and his other biblical contemporaries spoke truth to establishments of power. He was the truth bearing conscience to that power and the people, and petitioned that power to let his people go from the yolks of social and economic inequality and injustice. He was, to paraphrase his own words, a broken man insufficient for the task but lead by a great GOD who was more than able.
This speech and his unselfish dedication to a greater society, expands our theological assessment of what America WAS and IS today and to placate it by twisting and contorting his memory to conveniently fit into a mold that allows us to justify our arguments and leisurely live a deluded life of comfort and self absorbed detachment is not only a bastardization of his lifework but an indictment on the many lives, black and white, that died believing in the dream that is America.
As those of us that ponder Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s life and legacy today, let us remember that life in its entirety and correctly, in that we are called to speak the truth no matter how unpopular with our peers and government, to take care of the poor, the sick, the widows and the orphans, and to strive for equality and justice where injustice and inequality lie. Even if that calling is outside the borders of our own nation. As Dr. King said “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.”
As we contemplate these thoughts Dr. King’s words call out to us from the annals of time like a nostaligic soliloquy ushering us towards our higher selves until “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
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.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.