On New Years Eve of 2009, while attending a church service at Riverside Church, I sat in front of the pulpit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood at exactly one year before his death on April 4, 1968 to give the sermon, "Beyond Vietnam." During this sermon, in opposition to war, he called the U.S. Government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today...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 I say: "This is not just".
If Dr. King were still alive today, he would only need to change the title of his sermon to "Beyond Iraq / Afghanistan" because no matter how much time has passed since his death, war profiteering and the infected wounds created by violence remain the same. We have to at least consider that perhaps Dr. King would be disappointed in America and our military involvement in the Middle East.
Dr. King believed every person had a duty and responsibility to be in both the peace and civil-rights movements.
We must take the time to ask ourselves, have we left his legacy unfulfilled?
During the year leading up to his death, Dr. King worked with the SCLC on the "Poor People's Campaign" and marched on Washington to address issues of economic injustice regarding poor communities in the United States. His dream was to create a Bill of Rights for the Poor and requested that the government invest in rebuilding America's cities. He felt that Congress had shown "hostility to the poor" by spending excessive "military funds with generosity," while ignoring the oppressed and not spending money on social welfare programs.
Let us take a moment to review his last sermon, in his own words and see how it relates to current events.
REDIRECTING MISALLOCATED WAR SPENDING
The United States Congress was spending more and more on the military and less on anti-poverty programs at the same time. Dr. King summarized his perspective by declaring that, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
" I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam (or Afghanistan which will cost America 1.29 Trillion at the close of the 2011 fiscal year) continued to draw men and skills and money, like some demonic, destructive suction tube. And you may not know it, my friends, but it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier (today the cost is $50 million per enemy soldier), while we spend only fifty-three dollars for each person classified as poor, and much of that fifty-three dollars goes for salaries to people that are not poor. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such...I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own Government. "
WITHDRAWING OUR MILITARY SUPPORT OF CORRUPT GOVERNMENTS
"The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support and all the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us...the real enemy."
King stated that North Vietnam "did not begin to send in any large number of supplies or men until American forces had arrived in the tens of thousands" and that we had used our soldiers and military force to place General Diem in power, who ended up being one of the worst dictators in world history and a man who considered "Hitler to be his personal hero." Dr. King even accused the United States of having killed millions of (insert war name here.)
"I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men, for communists and capitalists, for their children and ours, for black and 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 to Jesus Christ? Can I threaten them with death, or must I not share with them my life? Finally, I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be the 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 today to speak for them. And as I ponder the madness of (insert war name here) and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak not now of the soldiers of each side, not of the military government of (insert country here), but simply of the people who have been under the curse of war for almost (ten) continuous (years) now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution until some attempt is made to know these people and hear their broken cries...."
PROTECTING THE INNOCENT, INSTEAD OF ENABLING OPPRESSION
"They (war refugees) move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps, where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go, primarily women, and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the towns and see thousands of thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers. We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. This is a role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolutions impossible but refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that comes from the immense profits of overseas investments. "
VALUING PEOPLE (HUMAN LIFE) MORE THAN PROFIT
I'm convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered. (We have lost over 109,000 American soldiers to the current war) A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our 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 changed 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."
REVOLUTION OF OUR VALUES
"A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. 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 hands 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"
REMEMBERING AMERICA'S TRUE COMMITMENT
"Communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo...
LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR (Yes, even those of a different religion / culture than you)
"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, unconditional love for all men.This oft misunderstood and 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 mankind. And when I speak of love I'm not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. 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 reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of John: "Let us love one another, for God is love. 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."
RAISING OUR MORAL STANDARDS BY OPPOSING WAR
"Let me say finally that I oppose the war (Insert war name here) because I love America. I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. We are presently moving down a dead-end road that can lead to national disaster. America has strayed to the far country of racism and militarism."
UNITING THE INTERNATIONAL BROTHERHOOD
"All men are made in the image of God. All men are brothers. All men are created equal. Every man is an heir to a legacy of dignity and worth. Every man has rights that are neither conferred by, nor derived from the State--they are God-given. Out of one blood, God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. "
HUMBLING A NATION LED ASTRAY
"America's strayed away, and this unnatural excursion has brought only confusion and bewilderment. It has left hearts aching with guilt and minds distorted with irrationality....It is time for all people of conscience to call upon America to come back home. Come home, America....I call on Washington today. I call on every man and woman of good will all over America today. I call on the young men of America who must make a choice today to take a stand on this issue. Tomorrow may be too late. The book may close. And don't let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, "You're too arrogant! And if you don't change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I'll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn't even know my name. Be still and know that I'm God."
ENDING MODERN SLAVE LABOR
When Dr. King traveled to Memphis, Tennesse on March 29, 1968 just days before his assasination it was in order to support the strike by black sanitary public works employees (sanitation workers) represented by Local 1733, AFSCME. The workers had been on strike for better working conditions and higher wages since March 12th because the black street repairmen had been sent home due to bad weather and only received pay for two hours, while white employees were paid a full days wages. If you think this issue has been resolved, think again. Many of the United States Department of Sanitation and Park's Employees (including NYC) are required to work a 40 hour work week but receive less than $500-$1000 per month in state aid or paid wages. Break it down, that is less than $6.25 per hour for a months worth of work, not including tax deductions. You know it as welfare. It is more cost effective for state government to pay wholesale labor / food stamp / low income housing rates and ensure a steady supply of 'seasonal city workers' to clean up the parks, pick up the trash, curbside garbage and shovel snow, than to pay worker a decent living wage. The catch is the majority of these 'seasonal welfare workers' are still minorities, single parents struggling to make ends meet or employees who have been 'blacklisted' and forced into the welfare system. Due to the stigma, shame and societal misconceptions associated with welfare recipients, these workers have a very difficult time escaping poverty without professional skills training, proper education or financial help. What many people do not realize is the system is designed to keep a 'certain social class down,' and trapped in a system of poverty and oppression that can last for generations. Dr. King understood the struggle out of this type of poverty and he lost his life fighting for economic justice. The fight is far from over.
BEING A LIGHT IN THE WORLD
"Now it isn't easy to stand up for truth and for justice. Sometimes it means being frustrated. When you tell the truth and take a stand, sometimes it means that you will walk the streets with a burdened heart. Sometimes it means losing a job...means being abused and scorned. It may mean having a seven, eight year old child asking a daddy, "Why do you have to go to jail so much?" And I've long since learned that to be a follower to the Jesus Christ means taking up the cross. And my bible tells me that Good Friday comes before Easter. Before the crown we wear, there is the cross that we must bear. Let us bear it--bear it for truth, bear it for justice, and bear it for peace. Let us go out this morning with that determination. And I have not lost faith. I'm not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven't lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I can still sing "We Shall Overcome" because Carlyle was right: "No lie can live forever..." With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid because the words of the Lord have spoken it. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when all over the world we will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we're free at last!" With this faith, we'll sing it as we're getting ready to sing it now. Men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And nations will not rise up against nations, neither shall they study war anymore. And I don't know about you, I ain't gonna study war no more."
When the darkness appears
And the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I'm tired, I'm weak, I'm lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
Take My Hand, Precious Lord, written by Thomas Dorsey in 1899 was Dr. King's favorite gospel song.
A subtle reminder to all of us to not only be lead to the light, but to be the light for those in the world still living in darkness....holding onto a dream.