Raise the Questions They Cannot Raise

WesSueDay 11 in our Lenten Journey through Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only noncommunist revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.

Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call “fortified hamlets.” The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these. Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.

By Sue Ferguson Johnson and Wes Howard-Brook

When King turned his prophetic voice to the war in Vietnam, he joined a long tradition of those who saw and named the connections between what he called the “evil triplets” of racism, capitalism and militarism. A century earlier, former slave Frederick Douglas, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and women’s suffragette Susan B. Anthony combined in a campaign that similarly linked such evils in their own time (see H. Meyer, All on Fire). Now, fifty years after King, we, too, are called to speak and to act in solidarity for justice in all its interconnected manifestations.

While neither King nor the 19th century activists had this terminology, we see King’s words here as part of the ongoing, ancient struggle between what we call the “religion of empire” and the “religion of creation” (see Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!:” God’s Call Out of Empire In the Bible and Beyond [Orbis 2010]). Within this framework, specific socioeconomic and related questions are understood within an overarching narrative of who God is and what it means to be God’s people. Is God the loving Creator of all that is and each person an interconnected expression of the divine image? Or is God a violent ruler who demands obedience to a hierarchical social order where some are “in” and others “out”? That is, when we fight a specific form of injustice in the name of Jesus, we can run the risk of treating a symptom (e.g., racism or war) rather than the disease (e.g., distorted worldview/religion). What King recognized so powerfully in this speech and others at that time was that racism is, to use a different metaphor, one head of “the beast.” The disease, or the beast, or the religion (of empire), involves seeing life as a competition for domination and control in a realm of scarcity. In such a worldview, one must struggle constantly for advantage, by whatever means necessary, to survive and prosper. Thus, fear of Communism led Americans to engage in ruthless slaughter in Vietnam, just as fear of blackness led to segregation and violence in the cities and streets of the US. And, of course, economically, fear of scarcity generates the ongoing war against the poor, which rages unabated today.

In contrast, Jesus, like King, proclaimed a Way that trusted in divine abundance to be shared among all those whom King called “the Beloved Community.” In that vision, there are no “foreigners,” no “outcasts,” no “illegal immigrants.” There are only siblings we’ve not yet had the honor of meeting and embracing in peace and fellowship. This vision knows no sectarian boundaries: Jesus followers like Thomas Merton joined with Buddhist monks like Thich Nhat Han as brothers, or in the work of black theologian James Cone, Martin and Malcolm joined hands. The Beloved Community honors and nurtures the ground-up social order of village and family, rather than destroying it.

To build on the foundation of violence and bitterness that is at the heart of the religion of empire is, in the words of Matthew’s gospel, to build on sand, while to build on the foundation of love and community that is the religion of creation is to build on rock (Matt 7.24-27). The one Spirit of Love and Truth of which Jesus spoke, the one he boldly called “Advocate” or “Defense Attorney” (John 14.17-26), fills all seeking to inhabit the Beloved Community into faithful, passionate, solidarity of purpose and action. We cannot afford to allow ourselves to be divided into factions, with, for example, people of color fighting racism, while whites battle climate change and indigenous folk protect local waters. We must come to see the connections that lead us all to be on the side of Life: not just human life, but all life. In other words, if we are committed to the religion of creation that Jesus and King proclaimed and embodied, we must see one another not simply as allies in a cause, but truly as God’s children.

Just as King lived in a time where the religion of empire seemed to hold sway, we, too, can easily become discouraged by the seeming victory of fear and violence. But, with apocalyptic eyes, we must see past the darkness of the moment, past the apparent reign of the “beasts,” to the coming of the Human One: the embodiment of God’s own self in fragile, vulnerable, human flesh, that is brown and black and yellow and red and white and other colors not yet named. May we take our own pulsing, living bodies and place them where King did: in the Beloved Community which gathers in families and villages, on the earth and in the streets, in trust in the God who makes and sustains the interweaving of all life and leads us in the Way of true peace.

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