Day 21 of our Lenten Journey through Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called “enemy,” I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.
Surely this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroy, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and dealt death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.
“A Bootcamp Against Cynicism” by Dee Dee Risher (photo above), the former editor of The Other Side Magazine and author of the recently released The Soulmaking Room
The dynamics Dr. King names in this his Riverside address—militarism, materialism, and racism–which we are slowly journeying through this Lent, are as old as history and as sharp as flint. That these realities have been around forever does not lessen their power, nor can it lessen our own resistance to them.
The fact that they recur in each generation should not defeat us. We are the ones to discern, expose, and name them in our own times. If we do not, they will not be named or fought.
But the fiercest challenge is that we are to do this battle in love. We cannot lose love for the humans caught in these struggles, even as we might oppose them. We are to reshape our own hearts internally. We have to struggle for the ongoing conversion of our own hearts even as we fight for external change.
The aspect of King that made him prophetic was not only his incisive vision into the machinations of his times. It was the fact that he exposed the spiritual dimensions of political decisions. He named the impact of human actions on the human soul.
So it is that in this section, he forces us to confront what war does to our souls, and specifically to those dispatched to battle in a distant and murky conflict, with unclear connections to protecting one’s country or people. And he names that enemy: cynicism.
As someone who has tried to be in the struggle for most of my life, I am familiar with cynicism. It is the fruit of disillusionment, of losing our illusions. For those of us who want to resist, it is the cancer we must fight.
I was a bit too late for the sixties and their fervor, but I know well the dynamic of fighting, and seeing the same old powers, victorious, year after year. I know the seduction of cynicism. It whispers: “Why do this? They will always win. Things will never shift. You are foolish. Accept the flawed world and play by its self-aggrandizing rules.”
I see how cynicism can affect our movements for social change. My teenage son hits the streets for school funding and reform in our poor urban school district. I have done that for decades and am getting tired. I point to the foibles of our social “changemakers”—highly paid nonprofit leaders who are as into power plays as our political leaders. Pox on all your houses, corruption everywhere, and sometimes I stay home, a victim of cynicism.
On days when I am in a bad mood, I could be just as cynical about Dr. King. I find no excuse for his sexism or his extra-marital liasions. I can’t reconcile them with the person I admire or his faith. Others, like Malcolm X, had more political daring and, further outside the system, made less political compromise.
How to fight this battle against cynicism?
The fight against cynicism requires us to grow in love. Love is our only antidote. But that antidote carries complexities. As we live into love, our political paradigms will be challenged and our prophetic edges confuzzled. We will see many connections with our adversaries that humanize them and entangle us in messy relationship. It will take wisdom to move forward when we realize that our enemy has a piece of truth we have not yet seen or reconciled. (This is an insight Dr. King was fond of articulating.) We need wisdom to discern the difference between a compromise that moves justice forward, and a sell-out.
The fight against cynicism requires us to grow in love. It will move us into human relationship. Frankly, it’s a lot easier to demonize our opponents and stay strident. This costs less in soul searching, and allows us to hang onto our ego-driven, anti-establishment selves with pride.
We must lose our illusions in order to see truth. Some lost illusions may be about our nation and the real motivations and benefactors of its policies. But if we are honest, some of those lost illusions will be about ourselves–our own motivations and small hearts.
This, then, brings us to the journey of Lent. It is a journey marked at the outset with three traditional disciplines: prayer, the giving of alms, and the denial of self (fasting). These are not the disciplines of war or armies. This is the terrain of the interior, boot camp to train us in our external struggles for justice. Spiritual tradition incorporates this boot camp each turn of the year, asks us to confront again questions of sin in the world and sin within. These weeks of lent are a place for hard questions and struggle, and they have one goal—to draw us away from ego and into self-less love that sees into the heart of things like a prophet, so that we might act resolutely. Even as we understand how human and flawed we are, we stay in the struggle against cynicism and toward love.