Frighteningly Relevant

Will ODay 18 of our Lenten Journey through Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

How do they judge us when our officials know that their membership is less than twenty-five percent communist, and yet insist on giving them the blanket name? What must they be thinking when they know that we are aware of their control of major sections of Vietnam, and yet we appear ready to allow national elections in which this highly organized political parallel government will not have a part? They ask how we can speak of free elections when the Saigon press is censored and controlled by the military junta. And they are surely right to wonder what kind of new government we plan to help form without them, the only real party in real touch with the peasants. They question our political goals and they deny the reality of a peace settlement from which they will be excluded. Their questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to build on political myth again, and then shore it up upon the power of a new violence?
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By Will O’Brien, of Project H.O.M.E. and the Alternative Seminary in Philadelphia

The Scriptural tradition, particularly in the scrolls of the prophets, communicates the deep wisdom that human history is marked by the persistent instinct toward power, particularly in governmental systems rooted in oppression and militarism. The late Walter Wink gave powerful articulation to this Scriptural wisdom: he termed it “the Domination System,” which recurs in sundry forms at different epochs throughout history.

Speaking as a contemporary prophet, Dr. King dissected the historical specificities of the Vietnam crisis as a window to the horrific ancient truth of empire. The United States in 1967 was building on the same “political myth” that buoyed Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Rome, the Soviet Union, and countless iterations of empire. The violence, as Dr. King notes, may be the result of new weaponry and technology, but the savagery is the same, and the essential lie of deadly human arrogance is painfully familiar. Even the Lord, it seems, laments this endless human addiction to corrupt and idolatrous power: “How long will you people turn my glory into shame? How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?” (Psalm 4:2).

With the unsettling political turn in the United States in this past year, many progressive people of faith and conscience have felt stunned, bewildered, even to the point of paralysis. We have been tempted to construe the presidency of billionaire outlier Donald Trump as something unprecedented, an impossibility for which we were utterly unprepared. Many communities of color have had to counsel their white sisters and brothers: Yes, this is an awful outcome, but frankly, it is not really new. The barely concealed racism, xenophobia, militant nationalism, and sheer aggressiveness that underlie “Trumpism” are just new dressing on powerful currents that have, sadly, always marked the American national experiment – and those currents will claim victims in this new day just as they have for the past two and a half centuries. Do we hear hints of the book of Ecclesiastes (ironically, a text from the inner chambers of imperial power proffering princely “wisdom”) in its sad lament, “Nothing is new under the sun”?

Like Dr. King, we must engage in rigorous social analysis, with a keen eye for what is historically new and specific to this moment. We need to grasp the social dynamics that are shoring up this political enterprise to “make America great again.” Clearly, it is a desperate effort to re-asset the old political myth of American dominance, exceptionalism, and unlimited economic power. It is in part a response to the increasingly undeniable crumbling of the “American dream,” as the consequences of the brazen pillaging of the economy by the uber-rich become more evident. It is also a response to the demographic shifts that are culturally re-shaping our nation – in many ways, positive evidence of what the late Vincent Harding called the continuing expansion of democracy – evoking a backlash from those whose sense of worth is rooted in a commitment to White supremacy. Be awake and vigilant, says Jesus; read the signs of the times.

At the same time, we must spiritually discern the deeper, ancient truths at work in this historical moment. And we must ground ourselves in the ancient prophetic story of a liberating God who shatters the swords of empire, who stands in solidarity with the victims of human arrogance and empire.

What is demanded of us in these times? How can we be truth-tellers, unveiling the myths and denouncing the violence? What risks must we be willing to take to act prophetically, compassionately, and justly? (It is worth remembering that these very words of Dr. King were a profound risk for him, one that ultimately cost him his life.) How might seize this strangely fractured moment in our society to invite many U.S. Christians out of the numbing fiction of American exceptionalism? How can we, in word and deed, re-assert the radical and revolutionary good news of Jesus?

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