Day 9 of our Lenten Journey through Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” Speech.
As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1954. And I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the brotherhood of man. This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances.
But even if it were not present, I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that 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 communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for 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 of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?
By Kate Foran (photo above), formed by the nonviolent resistance and radical hospitality of the Catholic Worker movement, and inspired and challenged by other communities of love & struggle (including the Beloved Community Center in North Carolina) whose faith drives their work for social transformation.
Here is King the prophet (honored abroad and scorned by many at home), explaining, in concentric circles of accountability, why he feels compelled to speak out against the Vietnam war. After appealing to his commitment to America’s vision, he broadens his argument beyond national boundaries. Then he appeals to his Gospel obligation. Two questions for Lenten devotion arise for me here: In the current climate of “America First” and “build-a-wall” rhetoric, what does it mean to “go beyond national allegiances?” And further, in King’s surprising turn of phrase, how do I not only “not threaten [my enemy] with death,” (then: the communist; now: the terrorist, the immigrant, the refugee, whoever is other…) but how do I “share my life with them?”
I share much of my life with children, and I ponder how to talk about these ideas with them. I hung some new maps recently—alongside a map of our watershed, there’s the “What’s up South” map, oriented with the southern hemisphere at the top (because “who says north is up?”), allowing us to talk about point-of-view and privilege. The second is a dymaxion map (below), which depicts the continents as one island in one ocean. I think of this map when I encounter in another of King’s speeches his vision that “All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.”
In some ways those ideas have been reduced to bumper sticker fads (“think globally, act locally”). But current realities point to their truth, not least the struggles in various communities around water—protecting it from contaminants, justly distributing it. The Water Protectors at Standing Rock and the Detroiters fighting for their public water supply, for example, prophesy that our fates intermingle and circulate like water and with water. Must I not share my life with them?
The earth-island surrounded by ocean in the dymaxion map speaks to my 6-year-old’s soul. She is in the midst (if we were someday to view a retrospective of her work) of what will surely be known as her “Whale Period.” She is all about cetaceans, and her love is broad and deep, and extends to their mysterious habitat.
This is how we explained solidarity to her: the fact that though she’s never encountered more than a glimpse of a whale, she loves them and wants them to thrive.
Through many visits to the library and meetings with the Cetacean Society International Youth group, our whole family has become more aware of the awesomeness of these beings who have whole languages and cultures of their own. We have also learned of the importance of whale oil in producing intercontinental ballistic missiles which drove whaling activity until very recently, and that whales continue to face many threats, including toxic contamination and climate change. Our conversations struggle to account for this madness, which is the same madness King saw underpinning the war in Vietnam. But my daughter understands that to share our lives with whales means to participate in the source-to-sea river clean up, to fight for a ban on plastic bags, to hand-make birthday gifts. And she’s inspired by the human activists who put their own bodies on the water to save whales from entanglement or harpoons.
For here also is what King means by share my life—what he named in his Nobel acceptance speech as the nonviolent movement’s “majestic scorn for risk and danger” on behalf of justice—the risk he took that made him a target; the cost of discipleship. King’s nonviolence was not about maintaining an ideological stance for personal purity on the cultural fringe. (As Rev Dr. William Barber II, an organizer out of North Carolina has said, “we need a moral center, not a religious left”). It is always about seeing the sacredness of the other, and acting from there. So here I am reading MLK’s speech alongside stories of eye-to-eye human-whale encounters, and it all calls to mind the Iris Murdoch line, “Love is the extremely difficult realization that someone other than oneself is real.”