By Weldon Nisly, originally posted in Hospitality (April 2017), the newsletter of Atlanta’s Open Door Community
Militarism is “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit” revealing “America is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” With this prophetic proclamation a half century ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., named the sin-sickness of America’s warring violence. Dr. King was preaching to America from the Riverside Church pulpit in New York on April 4, 1967.
On that consequential night fifty years ago, Dr. King declared, “A time comes when silence is betrayal,” and boldly revealed the interconnected violence of America’s “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.” His sermon forever connected civil rights, poverty, and war arising from a malady deep within the American soul and psyche.
Issuing “a passionate plea to my beloved nation….from the burnings of my own heart….to save the soul of America,” Dr. King echoed poet Langston Hughes poignant promise:
America never was America to me, and yet….America will be!
With the searing critique of a biblical prophet, he continued, “[I]t should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’ It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of [people] the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that ‘America will be’ are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.”
In painful detail, Dr. King explained how America’s war in Vietnam, waged under guise of fighting enemy communism, supported cruel leaders against innocent citizens. He lamented, “We have destroyed their most cherished institutions: family and village….land and crops.”
“We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation,” King warned. “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now….We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation….If we do not act, we will surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
Dr. King knew that killing innocent people at home and around the world was killing the soul of America. As a true prophet and preacher, King turned indictment into invitation: “[L]et us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the [children] of God….though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”
This April 4, 1967, sermon “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” was Dr. King’s defining witness to the Gospel’s call and cost confronting America’s racialized materialized militarized violence. It was his most controversial proclamation eliciting widespread condemnation.
America responded as threatened principalities and powers will, by vilifying the prophetic messenger of the Black Jesus. Exactly one year later, Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered by American machinations of warring violence on April 4, 1968.
Those whose eyes are opened by the Black Jesus, will see Dr. King’s sermon through the eyes of Jesus’ weeping lament over Jerusalem: “If you had only recognized the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19: 41f.)
Fifty years after Dr. King’s sermon to America, his prophetic word pleads to be heard and his witness begs to be seen. Yet we choose to let it be hidden from our eyes in 2017 as in 1967.
At least since 9/11, America’s way of war is permanent war revealing the deeper malady of a sickness that oozes poison as an open wound refusing healing. We choose the fallacy and failure of Just War become permanent war in three ways:
First, we pursue war as our ultimate answer to everything — presuming that “we” are good and “they” are evil.
Yet we choose to remain deaf to Einstein’s warning, “We cannot solve problems with the same thinking that created them.”
Second, we fail to count the real costs of war — $4.8 trillion and counting (Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, Brown University), not counting human costs of a million deaths, millions displaced, physical-mental-moral injury, racism, sexism, capitalism, homelessness, imprisonment, instilling and stimulating terrorism and torture, dysfunctional infrastructure, corruption and distrust, destroyed ancient artifacts, and more with no end in sight.
Yet we choose to remain dumb to Eisenhower’s warning, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
Third, we are mired in endless war we can’t win and can’t lose where we can’t stay and can’t leave – permanent war by definition, exposing forever the fallacy of Just War as just war. It is our malady of militarism fed by an insatiable and insane need for an enemy on whom to inflict asymmetrical warfare rooted in the hubris of American exceptionalism and entitlement in the name of white patriarchal Christian supremacy.
Yet we choose to remain blind to countless revelations of the lie of war since King’s sermon ( e.g., Mark Danner, Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War; David Swanson, War is a Lie; Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything).
Even deeper than the malady of militarism, Dr. King was speaking to the soul of America and the human soul. War is soul-numbing to nation and citizen. War exaggerates our good intentions and blinds us to our own self-serving shadow and sin. This is true for our national as well as our personal psyche and spirit.
Ancient mystics and contemporary spiritual guides help us confront our spiritual blindness, false self, deep shadow, and self-serving hubris. Without knowing our false self we cannot live into our True Self. Without seeing our deep shadow we cannot know who we really are created in God’s image. Without confronting our heinous hubris we cannot live with humility and honesty. Without letting go of our violence we cannot embody nonviolence. Without rejecting the lie of Just War we cannot envision and embody Jesus’ Just Peace.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, with the Risen Jesus, is our life-giving spiritual guide confronting our three-fold American malady of racism, materialism, militarism. Our personal and national question today is the same as 50 years ago: Will we heed or kill our spiritual guide and prophet of the Black Jesus?