Martin Luther King, Jr.—Instrument of Peace
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 16, 2005
Now that he is safely dead
Let us praise him
build monuments to his glory
sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make
such convenient heroes: They
to challenge the images
we would fashion from their lives.
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.
Not exactly the “Hallmark cards” version of a Martin Luther King Day poem, is it? It’s something of a downer, really. So why do I read it year after year?
Because Hines’ poem reminds us that we’re not there yet.
It reminds me that, while Dr. King may be worshipped (out least publicly) as a “hero” and a “great American” by those in power today, that many of these very same men who sing his praises now had precious little good to say about him while he was alive. They may find a little time this week, amidst their gala balls and soirees and other gatherings of the elite, to lay a wreath upon his grave, but they would not have been as kind to the good reverend while he was alive. They brought him no flowers back then, certainly.
He was a man of peace, Dr. King was. Furthermore, as a student of history, I am convinced that his mediating influence saved this nation from the bitter chastisement of a long and violent racial conflict which would have cost us all dearly. Dedicated Christian that he was, Dr. King knew that the better way of the spirit meant forgiving your enemies, and turning the other cheek, and living the mandate of universal love. King was a committed pacifist, and he knew that you can’t bring about peace by waging war: in the struggle for civil rights no less than in the jungles of Vietnam.
But Martin Luther King was also a committed crusader for freedom—a drum major for social justice, that’s how he wanted to be remembered. He knew, too, that you didn’t bring to birth justice by countenancing injustice. So, while he was a man of peace, he was not a man of vacillation and appeasement. Like Jesus before him, he was not always an easy man for those in power to bear. While he was alive, he was no safe and easy, cuddly and warm national icon.
He was a prophet—pulling his people and his nation forward into the next stage of their development. And true prophets are seldom easy people to be around.
He was a man grown increasingly impatient with the status quo of his own day. We can only imagine what he would make of our own day, when reactionaries rule and there is barely the pretense of caring about social justice in our national administration.
He was a radical—a man who knew that the building of the beloved community required a complete transformation of the society in which he lived, and the values it lived by.
Martin Luther King Day, for me, is not a time for us to bask in the glow of self-satisfaction about how great we art as a nation, and how far we have come. It is, rather, a time to take an honest reckoning of how far we stray from the principles of liberty and justice for all which shine at the heart of our national dream, if not in the core of our actual history and practice. It is a time when we take stock, and ask ourselves what is to be done if we are to get back on that road toward justice.
In his poem, Hines reminds us that what we truly need to do to live out the legacy of Martin Luther King is to build a better world. That is hard work--especially in our world and in our nation today--especially in our world at war.
In April of 1967—exactly a year to day before he was assassinated-- Dr. King was invited to deliver an address to the association of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam at Riverside Church in New York. His words speak to our own time just as clearly as they did to his (the words of a prophet have a way of doing that sometimes):
“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,” Dr. King said at the time, with America “waist deep in the Big Muddy” of Vietnam.
(We have heard those voices in our own time, telling us not to oppose the fiasco of Iraq—not to question our leaders—not to undermine our nation’s position-- at a time of war.)
Dr. King continues: “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.” (No, it always seems easier just to “go along to get along”; not to question; to remain silent.)
“Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty.”
Vietnam was complicated, and so is Iraq. The world is a complicated place (in case you haven’t noticed). Saddam Hussein was a wretched dictator, a tyrant to his people. He deserved to be toppled; the world ought to be glad to be rid of him… But we conveniently “forget” that our government supported Saddam for many years. We armed him. He was our “ally” in the struggle against Iran. Our government didn’t seem too concerned about his human rights record back then—we didn’t seem to care how he treated the Kurds back then—when he was our “friend”.
Just because the world is a complicated place, that doesn’t mean we don’t know the difference between right and wrong. Launching a preemptive war against another country in the absence of an imminent attack (even in the absence of all those phantom “weapons of mass destruction” is wrong. Reigning down destruction upon an innocent civilian population (whom we are supposedly there to “liberate”) is wrong. As Howard Zinn reminds us, “No flag is large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”
Knowing that the world is complicated is no excuse for abdicating the moral responsibility to choose. It doesn’t excuse us from action. We must choose, DR. King tells us, and “we must move on.”
To those who told him that “peace and civil rights don’t mix”, Dr. King responded:
A couple of days ago, President Bush said that the Social Security system could be bankrupt within the next 40 years or so. The present federal budget deficit now stands at 412 billion dollars a year (with a ten year deficit projected at near 2.3 trillion dollars). Yet, tax cuts for the wealthy, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars per year, stay in place. The Iraq War has cost $ 102 billion through September, with no end in site.
Nor are we just sapping our nation’s wealth and resources; even more importantly, think of the human costs:
As I read Dr. King’s words, I thought immediately of the scenes in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, when he follows two Marine recruiters as they make their rounds in poor neighborhoods in the inner city of Flint, Michigan. They don’t go to the malls or the athletic clubs or the academies where the white, upper-middle-class kids hang out. No, they prey on the shopping centers and the gyms and the schools on the “other side of the tracks”. Likewise, Moore was markedly unsuccessful when he tried to get members of Congress to enlist their sons or daughters to fight in the war they had so eagerly supported. Indeed, of all the members of Congress (535 in all) only one has had a child on active duty, serving in Iraq. “Great war,” the members of Congress seem to be saying—“But not for my kids! Let someone else fight it.”
And always, that someone else is, disproportionately, people of color, the poor, the disenfranchised, and the unemployed. Those who have been marginalized and cast aside by our dog-eat-dog society.
“I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor,” Dr. King wrote.
Nor should we.
Not if we are going to be true to Dr. King’s dream.
Not if we are going to redeem the American dream, and rescue it from is present nightmare of reaction.
To Dr. King and those who followed him, the Civil Rights struggle was a battle “To save the soul of America.” His words echo those of the great poet Langston Hughes, who had written years before:
O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath --
America will be!
Then, Dr. King continued:
For Dr. King, the mandate to promote peace and oppose war was not merely a political opinion; it was a deep religious calling. As a committed follower of Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King saw no other choice for himself:
We are, Dr. King reminds us, “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,” as religious men and women, “to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers [and our sisters].”
“Somehow” – Dr. King implores us—“this madness must cease.” Not just the war in Vietnam—not just the war in Iraq—but the entire militarist mindset which makes such tragedies happen, and which debases our history and defiles our humanity:
Finally, Dr. King concluded: “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.”
It is that malady which has time and again kept us from out better self as a nation. It has caused us to be far too quick to preach violence as the default solution to all interpersonal conflicts. (Is it any surprise, then, that we have one of the highest murder rates in the world—one of the highest rates of incarceration—that we are the only “democratic” nation still clinging to state-sanctioned murder in the form of the death penalty?) Now, this pro-violence mindset—this mindset of brute force and bravado and arrogance—seems to have a stranglehold on our national political life.
The world needs a revolution, Dr. King preached. Not a violent revolution based on the same old ways of bloodshed and yet another changing of the guard at the top of the heap. But a revolution in values. A spiritual revolution. A profoundly and essentially non-violent revolution.
“America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values,” Dr. King wrote. “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 [genuine world community].”
Sometimes, it is easy to look out at the world and get discouraged. Especially in difficult days like these, it is easy to despair that we will ever know peace. “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.” That mad trinity—racism, materialism, militarism-- seems firmly in control of us these days, even more than they did when Dr. King walked among us.
But because it is late, we must not delay the work that is ours to do any longer.
The splendid garden that once was Earth has been laid waste for too long by evil forces of greed and violence and war. They have clear cut the forest, leaving only the wreckage of human lives and human dreams in their wake.
But we have tender saplings we can plant. Saplings of hope. Saplings of our caring for one another. Saplings of love, and our care for the Earth. Saplings of the memory of truly prophetic figures like him we remember this day.
We must plant these saplings at once. For hope can be the fast growing plant of all. And love can overtake a wilderness, and make it bloom and flower again.
But these trees of life will not grow at all unless we plant them.
And his memory will not be redeemed unless we live his Dream, every day of our lives.