Day 4 of our Lenten Journey with Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” Speech
Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
“A Lent Beyond Despair” By Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann (photo above) of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit
As we begin the contemplative foray into Dr. King’s seven words on the war, it is well worth considering the overall structure of those reasons for resistance. The first three view the war through the lens of the reigning principalities of the U.S. domination system: materialism, white racism, and militarism: 1) that the war is an attack on the poor, dismantling programs of support in order to fund it, 2) that it is a racist war, sending young men in brutal solidarity to burn huts in Vietnamese villages, who wouldn’t be able to live next door in Detroit, and 3) that he couldn’t preach nonviolence to young people on the street without also opposing the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.” He will subsequently name these the “giant triplets,” the ruling powers of domination.
The flip side of that, of course, is that he’s making connections between three movements: the anti-racist freedom struggle, the peace movement, and the struggles toward ending poverty. While he would also forge links between the freedom struggle and those for economic justice – like supporting the Sanitation Workers’ unionization struggle in Memphis, or the organization of the Poor Peoples’ campaign which was to converge on Washington – he was in this speech specifically summoning together the freedom struggle and the anti-war movement. Forging such links, of course, can get you targeted and killed as he well knew.
Borrowing a phrase on biblical prophesy from Abraham Heschel (who sat behind him as he spoke), Dr. King identified the “vocation of agony” his decision provoked. His fourth reason is literally pivotal in this regard, dynamically cutting two ways. Backward to the list of powers and forward to his vocational identity. On the latter, the voices of constraint, from his own board to LBJ, would hold him back with a narrowing definition of his call: “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?” But to his mind instead of constricting, even that compels him, since from the beginning the motto of SCLC had been, “To save the soul of America.” He understood the nation as a spiritual power, albeit a fallen one, but with a constitution and a vocation that could be called upon.
Dr King cited Langston Hughes: “O, yes,/ I say it plain,/ America never was America to me,/ And yet I swear this oath -/ America will be!” In his “concern for the integrity of life in America.” Dr. King could lead a march walking the nonviolent way of the cross, and carry the flag along in train – summoning the best of the American tradition and so it’s hope. Later in this address, however, after naming the giant triplets, he comes to a very strong point: “Any nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Notice now, he moves from the powers of spiritual death to the callings of spiritual life. His reasons are also related directly to his own “vocation,” however agonized. The broadening and deepening of the sequence is noteworthy. Starting again with number four – he does base this opposition on his work as a civil rights leader and the task of healing the nation’s soul. But further, he feels it incumbent upon him because of the Nobel Peace Prize which he accepted as an internationalizing commission. It laid upon him a task of nurturing global nonviolence. And thirdly, reason six, he is compelled as a minister and disciple of Jesus. That is no small thing. For some, most religious, that would be the pinnacle of vocational cause, but Dr. King goes another step deeper: it is finally his solidarity with all humanity as a “child of God.” He speaks out of his vocation to be truly and fully human.
So, four reasons related to four powers at work in prosecuting the war, matched by four reasons arising personally and politically from his own identity and vocation. If today the powers remain, ever more versatile and entrenched, the discipleship question finally concerns how our own callings lead us to address them with our very lives.