In preparing for a panel discussion about Martin Luther King, Jr., I re-read the sermon that he delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City. The sermon is titled, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” and it took place on April 4, 1967, one year to the day before King’s assassination.
Dr. King was cautioned by many of his advisors not to give that sermon because it was sure to alienate influential supporters of the civil rights movement, including President Lyndon Johnson. Nonetheless, King spoke out.
He gave a powerful and eloquent sermon, one well worth reflecting on, particularly in light of the new Ken Burns and Lynn Novick ten-part documentary on the war in Vietnam. I’ll review below some of the lines in King’s sermon that jumped out at me
Dr. King said, “I see this war as an unjust, evil and futile war. I preach to you today on the war in Vietnam because my conscience leaves me with no other choice.” Dr. King is speaking truth to power in naming the war for what it was — “unjust, evil and futile.” King was a great leader because he led from his conscience and, in doing so, inspired and empowered others to do so.
Dr. King explained the reasons he would not keep silent about the war. “I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality,” he stated. “There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.”
In this Vietnam sermon, Dr. King referred to the American government as “…the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Now, 50 years after King spoke these words, this remains true, as the U.S. continues to pursue two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and other smaller wars.
King offered a solution to the problems confronting the American society that resulted in violence. He argued, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.”
Dr. King was committed to building a people-oriented society and a world in which racism, militarism and economic exploitation were overcome by people of goodwill and their nonviolent resistance. King’s conscience guided him to speak out against these three interrelated evils.
King warned, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” I can only imagine how distraught he would be to have heard Donald Trump brag in his recent speech to the United Nations that the U.S. would be spending $700 billion on “defense” in the next year. Dr. King would also have been dismayed to have heard Trump taunting the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.
Throughout his life, despite many setbacks in his quest for social and economic justice, Dr. King managed to keep his faith alive: “I haven’t lost faith,” he said, “because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Dr. King was also keenly aware of the dangers of the Nuclear Age. He lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis and, in his 1964 Nobel Lecture, he spoke of “the ever-present threat of annihilation.” He worried that a new world war could result in the use of nuclear weapons: “A world war — God forbid! — will leave only smoldering ashes as a mute testimony of a human race whose folly led inexorably to ultimate death. So if modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war, he will transform his earthly habitat into an inferno such as even the mind of Dante could not imagine.”
Sometimes we must look backward to great peace leaders of the past, such as Dr. King, to guide us in moving forward in achieving peace with justice.
David Krieger is a founder and president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org).