Day 24 of our Lenten Journey through Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.
Part of our ongoing commitment might well express itself in an offer to grant asylum to any Vietnamese who fears for his life under a new regime which included the Liberation Front. Then we must make what reparations we can for the damage we have done. We must provide the medical aid that is badly needed, making it available in this country if necessary. Meanwhile, meanwhile, we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must continue to raise our voices and our lives if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative method of protest possible.
As we counsel young men concerning military service, we must clarify for them our nation’s role in Vietnam and challenge them with the alternative of conscientious objection. I am pleased to say that this is a path now chosen by more than seventy students at my own alma mater, Morehouse College, and I recommend it to all who find the American course in Vietnam a dishonorable and unjust one. Moreover, I would encourage all ministers of draft age to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as conscientious objectors. These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.
Now there is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter that struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing.
From Ric Hudgens, pastor at North Suburban Mennonite Church in Lake County, Illinois:
In April 1967 at the time of Dr King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech the number of US troops in Vietnam was peaking at half a million with over a thousand casualties per month. Simultaneously the anti-war movement was also reaching its apex. In New York City 300,000 marched against the war. 50,000 marched at the Pentagon with hundreds arrested and jailed. Yet in 1967 the majority of churches, white AND black, remained silent.
Beyond Vietnam is a radical address. Perhaps it takes radical ears to hear it. Perhaps it takes radical eyes to see the world it envisions; the church it believes still possible. Dr King’s vision had expanded beyond single issues to a broader focus on systemic and structural evils. In “Beyond Vietnam” King lifted his eyes across the borders of the United States to our place in the world domination system. A broader vision evokes broader responsibilities.
In this section Dr King speaks of both an “ongoing commitment” and a “continuing task”. I want to draw your attention to this portion: “These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”
Well, if 1967 was the time for “real choices and not false ones” then how much more is now the time? As neo-fascism removes its mask we see the visible profile outlined by Dr King fifty years ago.
First, we are presented with false choices. These come in several varieties. A false choice can be simply a limited choice: a choice between two options when there may be three or four. The contemporary church in America has often been hamstrung by false choices between evangelism or social justice, prayer or protest, non-involvement or “selling out”.
A false choice becomes more sinister when it is a choice between truth and falsehood – or as we are being taught to think a choice between facts and “alternative facts”. False choices can sometimes distract us from true choices, ultimate choices, decisive choices: like the choice between a blessing a curse, between life and death. False choices are often forms of veiled coercion.
We need to insist that there are always choices to be made. Often times our role is to insist that there are more choices than those being presented. The dilemma of the false choice takes advantage of our limited imaginations and our willingness to let someone else define the context. Sometimes the way forward requires us to step off the sidewalk, to take the road less travelled by – to choose that narrow way that leads to life.
Second, we are called to name folly. False choices are the difference between wisdom and folly. Yes, Jesus once warned against calling someone a fool (Matthew 5:22) but that was not meant to prevent us from naming folly. Folly is a form of delusion, a path into confusion, a highway to destruction. Folly is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.
We learn to name folly by cultivating wisdom. Faithful wisdom is cultivated through practice-reflection empowered and led by Spirit over time in the context of engaged community. Sometimes there is a necessary wisdom dimension missing from our activism. Our activism sometimes drifts into mere acting out, political masturbation, that is not well planned out or well prayed out. Naming folly requires us to also name our own folly – to be intentional and wise about forms of activism for example that really do expose the powers and not just our own passions.
Finally, we must decide to protest. We must voice our complaint in the public square. Protest is both a form of advocacy and the practice of lamentation and witness. The prophet Habakkuk spoke of all mortal flesh keeping silent before God (Habakkuk 2:2). But we cannot keep silent before humanity when the powerful oppress the powerless. We cannot keep silent when those are the margins are being pushed over the edge. When America’s worst maladies are being reinforced, our historic dysfunctions heightened, our systemic evils deepened.
Seeing so much abiding resonance between our age and King’s we must ask about what we’ve been doing all these years. When maladies persist there is perhaps some shortcoming in our diagnosis – some inadequacy in our treatment. Is it enough in the age of T***p (I cannot bear to type his name) to simply do all that we have been doing only with a louder voice and a more frenetic spirit? Is a deeper listening required? A deeper collaboration? A deeper imagination?
Dr King calls us to make real choices not false ones. To name folly and seek wisdom. To protest with conviction. It has been fifty years, yes, it has. We must move beyond silence.