A True Revolution of Values

ChedDay 27 of our Lenten Journey through Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see than an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

 A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
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By Ched Myers (photo above), Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries

I am grateful that this blog is, through the Lenten season, joining the widespread campaign this year among faith-rooted peace and justice circles to both commemorate and “workshop” King’s most important—and consequential—address. As many commentators in this series have pointed out in refrain, King’s analysis remains disturbingly resonant today.

The Riverside sermon represents, in my opinion, the most significant public oration in U.S. history. King was prophetic in both senses of that word—speaking truth to power and anticipating the historical consequences of our collective choices. Because of this, some of us have come to see this discourse as a sort of “hermeneutic key” for our faith and our politics.

King gave us more than a bold critique of the Indochina War and the global inequities of capitalism (the latter theme is highlighted in today’s excerpt). They offered a deep archaeology of U.S. public culture and identity—the culmination of King’s decade-long struggle “for the soul of America.” And of the many trenchant notes hit in this sermon, its call in today’s passage to move beyond “Good Samaritan” roles to the struggle to transform the “Jericho Road” of systemic violence at home and abroad is surely among the most poignant. If only our churches could once and for all embrace this vocation!

We should not be surprised that such clarity and vision would arise from the trenches of this country’s greatest popular movement for justice, lessons learned and earned in the bitter catechism of American apartheid. Yet as pointed out already in this series (see Tavis Smiley’s summary on Day 7), King could have chosen not to join publicly his considerable moral authority to the anti-war and anti-imperialism movements in 1967, and thus perhaps saved his own life. But his conscience would not allow him to stay safely within the bounds of more acceptable Civil Rights politics. And he was spurred along not only by sermon ghost writer Vincent Harding (see Rose Berger’s comments on Day 8), but by his partner Coretta Scott, who had already publicly opposed the war at a 1965 rally at Madison Square Garden. Coretta’s fingerprints are also on this text.

MLKHere in Southern California we are not only commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Beyond Vietnam” at the beginning of April, but at month’s end also “remem-bearing” the 25th anniversary of the largest urban uprising in the history of the U.S. (we’ll be cosponsoring an event with the Korean community). It is important to recall how deeply King was impacted by rioting in American cities during consecutive summers prior to the Riverside sermon, including the Watts rebellion (right, Bayard Rustin with Dr. King at a gathering in L.A, Aug. 18, 1965; AP Photo/Don Brinn).

King alludes to his conversations with young rioters in some of the most powerful rhetoric of the Riverside sermon: “Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government” (See Glenn Greenwald’s comments on Day 6). Such experiences led King, in an extraordinary and relatively obscure interview with NBC News just a month after Riverside, to lament that his “dream had become a nightmare” (you can view it here).

King saw with increasing clarity that the same violent economic disparity named in today’s passage also characterized domestic society, especially for African Americans. This became his focus after his fair housing initiative in Chicago in 1965-66, and at the time of the Riverside sermon, King was already strategizing for the Poor People’s Campaign. (This brilliant strategy is being rehabilitated today by our friends in the New Poor People’s Campaign). This trajectory in King’s work culminated in his fateful March 1968 decision to stand with the Memphis sanitation worker’s strike, an act of profound solidarity with low wage labor that led to his own martyrdom—exactly one year after Riverside (chronicled in the must-see 1993 film “At the River I Stand”).

The last 50 years of our history have only vindicated King’s prescient analysis of the spiral of violence and oppression. And our future depends upon our ability and willingness to embrace of Dr. King’s call to a “revolution of values.” May this sermon continue to resonate and animate a more radical Christian discipleship in our own dark political moment.

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