Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King, "Beyond Vietnam," and Today

A few days ago I was driving around and listened to a radio program talk about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence." The conversation resonated with me, and I encourage you to look at the complete transcript of Dr. King's speech, which you can find online here.

This particular speech isn't nearly as well-known as his rightfully immortal "I Have a Dream" speech, but it's worthy of our attention, considering several of the discussions our nation is having today.

Some believe that this speech, in which MLK came out strongly against the war in Vietnam, and which was delivered exactly one year before MLK's assassination, was the reason for his assassination, and for the timing of it. In this speech, the activist for black civil rights came out as an antiwar protester.

But the speech was much more. If you read the speech today, you will find it rather chilling in its predictions about the course of US foreign policy and the effect it might have on the rest of the world. He questioned the fairness and justice of our policies in Asia, Africa, and South America, and he encouraged America to mend its ways.

Here's an excerpt.

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.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing--embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate--ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: "Let us love one another, for love is God. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love." "If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us." Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.

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.

I find Dr. King's notion of a "revolution of values" a compelling idea. He was urging us to reexamine our paradigm, which, of course, is what Jesus did when he encouraged his followers to not demand an eye for an eye, but instead to turn the other cheek. When he washed the feet of the downtrodden, and dined with the outcasts.

It's a hard role model to live up to. We're animals--we're needy, we're afraid, we're hungry, we want to survive and to thrive. And we're sneaky; even when we think we're being completely altruistic, upon reflection, we find we may not be.

But we're much more than animals--we think ahead, we reflect on the past, we have conscience, we have free will--and that's where the revolution must originate.

King pointed out how government funds for helping the poor had been sucked away by the Vietnam War. Instead of being helped, the poor were sent in high proportions to serve and be killed as soldiers. And in the case of human history, that's how it's always been. But must it always be?

Our country--no, our species--needs the revolution in values King talked about. If not for the sake of the poor, then for the sake of the souls of the rich.

And meanwhile, the recent speech that President Obama gave in Tucson still rings in my ears. In fact, that whole episode--the madman whose sickness was "overlooked," a nation with huge problems with its health care system, the hatred that political candidates use to acquire funds and get people to act, the question about whether it should be okey-dokey for people to buy semiautomatic weapons that can fire off 15 or 30 rounds without reloading . . . it all makes you think about where we're going.

Obama had a simple request: Let's all try to act the way our children expect us to act. That little girl who was shot down would want us to act like the grown-ups she believed we are.

And over and over again, I think to myself that human culture is the biggest democracy there is. Culture is defined collectively, by the people. Every day, we each have a vote; we vote by the way we behave and speak. Human culture may resemble a school of fish, which all seem to move together as a unit. But even schooling fish are capable of moving independently, and so are we. No one is forcing us to follow the pattern.

I suggest that we not wait for television and our political or even religious leaders to shepherd us in whatever direction they think is best. Advertisers rule the TV; politicians answer to their funders. Ministers, sadly, too often follow their flock, who, sadly, too often follow their television. Instead, I think we should each strengthen our habits of big thoughts, fair thoughts, compassionate thoughts, and forethought.

I've recently been reading some of the writings of Benjamin Franklin, and I have been impressed by his expository powers. Did people in the late 1700s actually take the time to read paragraphs, and essays, and articles? If so, they are smarter than we are today.

There seems to be a great trend today to see things in black and white, good or evil, to make summary judgments. The quick decision, the simple thought, the pithy reply, the tweet, is valued over the ponderous essay that addresses many angles. To me, the trend away from seeing the "gray areas" is a trend away from true understanding. Big ideas require more than tweets and sound bytes. Take the time to read something "real," and reflect on it.

I wish that I could express myself as well as Dr. King, but I cannot, and that's why I'm not a writer. But I encourage you to read Dr. King's speech. It really made me think.

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