Day 29 of our Lenten Journey through Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.
These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We in the West must support these revolutions.
It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch antirevolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
“Beyond Vietnam; Before Apocalypse” by Dr. James Parkinson (photo above), Ecumenical Theological Seminary (Detroit, MI)
Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech marked a moment of decision for King and the movement he led. Speaking out to link the dropping of bombs on brown skin in Asian rice paddies with the refusal to enact policy addressing the real needs of black people in inner city America laid bare the depths of US violence. It was not enough to address civil rights alone; profound concern for the civil sphere enjoined profound concern for the military, the economy and society at large. King went to the bone with his knife, cut open putrid flesh long festering, joined the right to sit at lunch counters with whites to the question of the right to eat at all. Like Malcolm and so many others before him, once insisting the ugly triplets (militarism, materialism, and “melanism”) were in fact features of each other, King did not have long to live. And the movements he anchored or provoked—Civil Rights and Black Power alike—faced draconian repression and damnable cooptation. Fast forward.
As I write, the Obama Administration has announced denial of easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project to beginning drilling under the Missouri River. On the very weekend when some 4,000 US veterans were scheduled to arrive to offer service in protecting the water protectors, the Powers momentarily blinked. In the camp of the Lakota Sioux-led effort to pray and drum the “black-snake-pipe” of oil profits threatening the future of children and land alike back into its lair—dancing and laughter and tears! A reprieve! A brief triumph of bodies—red, black, white, brown, and yellow—“militantly” peaceful, committedly responsive to ancestral memories and sacrifices, resolved to stand up for the waters—galvanized global attention. And threw down a challenge to local struggle everywhere! King could sigh tranquil in his grave, grateful his example continues to seed history with fresh sprouts of audacity. For a moment.
But the moment we inhabit gathers clouds of destruction like perhaps none of recent memory. Climate change rolls in with the testimony of the rest of the biosphere that human plundering of all else will not much longer be tolerated. Biblically, it is often the witness of trees and seas, soils and storms, doves and bushes and volcanos that convey the ultimate “word” of judgment. Neo-liberal evisceration of the poor, of our earth-mother, of the very waters of life, has created a scenario of war and desperation and suffering that promises to ghost the future as far as the eye can see. Banks and their armies, corporations and their nation-state acolytes, are bringing the jack-boot down hard on the neck of the “shirtless and barefoot” that King championed in his speech. And soon enough, on the rest of us. Old supremacies surge up, white-faced and raging against every hue of color. The Powers unleashed.
I write from inner city Detroit, where the predation for more than a half-century now (indeed, for a 400-year settler colonial promulgation) has created an epidemic of desolation—a city of creative ferocity, slowly being “eaten” by a monstrosity of corporate greed, channeled through a sycophant political machine and an Emergency Management scheme of unrestricted piracy. Up the road in Flint, the regime is one of poisoning. But underneath the prime time glitz of corporate self-congratulation, behind the door of foreclosure and tears, smolders a blazing resistance, led by African American mothers delivering water to elders and freedom schools to children, and hip-hop-heads spitting pain into vision and re-making their ‘hoods into a garden. It is to such that I bow and from such that I take direction for the struggle to come. They are my living MLKs.
King announced in his time revolutionary fervor to change the status quo, hoping in the day of leveled mountains and crooked lines made straight. Perhaps beyond his ken, the hope was actually in the long patient work of weather to redistribute the Eden heights of divine cloud bursts to the low marshes and deserts and the frenzy of rivers gradually slowing and lengthening their curves in tranquil emptying into the great womb-basins of the planet whence the food-chain begins. Of course today, we also hope in the continuance of Himalayan up-thrusts and lowering valleys to collect rain from above and nutrient-rich sediment down below. But these will continue to the utter end in constancy and blessing. The question is whether we will.
Standing Rock here bears witness updating King’s own that challenges all. The Sioux-savvy is clear: they serve the waters themselves, not merely human flourishing. The hour is upon us now where revolution must indeed “re-volve,” “re-turn” to what ancestors knew and practiced. Like a Tecumseh in my part of the world in the early 19th century, or indigenous across the globe today chaining themselves to trees or rebuking dams—the summons is stark and fierce. Live the reciprocity that wild nature enshrines as primal law, give beauty a fierce body of witness come what may, work for the flourishing of every watershed “unto itself” and every poor community towards its own empowering, and above all, stand proud and unbowed before the onslaught. Death will come in its time; what we die for, is up to us.