Sunday, January 14, 2007

Beyond the Dream: MLK on War

On Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, countless news sources will replay just part of King's speech at the March on Washington -- the second "I have a dream" part, ignoring the first half of the speech which laid the context for the uplifting dream segment. King began with a critique, arguing that "America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'" It was time for broken promises to be fulfilled, he insisted. "We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."

But on this Martin Luther King Day, perhaps it is best to reflect on a different message from Dr. King, delivered on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City: Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence.

King began by reflecting on these words from Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." He said:

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....

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.

And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries....

For the rest, text and audio, click here.

Update: Coverage of this speech on NPR on Monday morning is here.

Photo credit: Image by John Goodwin.