The prophetic vocation: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on justice and peace

January 16th, 2016

I hope to accomplish three things in this essay. 

First, I intend to put the renowned Riverside Church sermon, “A Time to Break Silence,” or, as it is alternatively entitled, “Beyond Vietnam,” into historical context, to recall that turbulent period in American history when this sermon was preached by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and to remind ourselves that it was preached on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before he was assassinated.

Second, I will lift up excerpts from the writings of Dr. King on the themes of justice and peace as well as highlight selected passages from the Riverside sermon in the hope of not only inspiring us with his soaring eloquence, but also energizing us with his call to action. As Vincent Harding averred in his book, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, “his Riverside speech offers a summons to us ... to create a new reality.” And Harding should know as he had a hand in its authorship.

Third, I will make some comments about the prophetic vocation of Dr. King, about the fate that often awaits messengers who deliver such disturbing messages as that contained in the document under examination. For “…King was waging,” in the words of Adam Wolfson, in his essay “The Martin Luther King We Remember,” “a more fundamental battle … over the meaning of America.” Dr. King was on a “sacred mission to save America,” as the subtitle of Stewart Burns book, To the Mountaintop, aptly puts it, adding that Dr. King, in fact, “wanted to send a message to posterity, a prophecy for the ages.”

TIME, January 3, 1964

It is important to remember, however, his message was not always welcome despite the fact that his public ministry was highly honored. We must remember he was named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1964, and in the very same year, was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, yet he met the same fate as many prophets before him.

Dr. King spoke frequently of “guns and butter” — peace and justice. But my emphasis will be more on guns and less on butter. Namely, I will be discussing guns — and how we cannot possibly have both — guns and butter. My intention is to set Dr. King’s life and work on behalf of peace and justice in a larger context in order that we might thereby broaden our perspective on and gain a deeper appreciation for the prophetic vocation as it was embodied in the life and work of Dr. King. After all, in his December 11, 1964 Nobel Lecture, Dr. King decried conditions in America where the poor “are perishing on a lonely island of poverty” while “they are surrounded by a vast ocean of material prosperity.” He would concur with the formulation of economic realities in the United States today once offered by William Sloane Coffin, former Senior Minister of Riverside Church and Yale University chaplain, that we live in a nation wherein “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the military grows more powerful.”

Dr. King had the knack for making connections and, as a consequence, he called on us “to see … war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.” He could recognize, in ways many of us cannot or will not, the inextricable linkage between justice and peace issues. As the novelist and author Arundhati Roy reminds us, Dr. King “drew some connections that many these days shy away from making.” Dr. King took note of the inevitable budget trade-offs that exist within what President Eisenhower warned, in his January 17, 1961 Farewell Address, was a country rapidly becoming a “military-industrial complex,” now a fait accompli. Moreover, Dr. King would agree with the same former President and genuine war-hero general. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” Dr. King would have us “connect the dots” in our day as he did in his. He would be appalled by the absence today of any great national debate on the subject matter at hand. And, he would have us not only ethically determine the terms of the debate, but demand such a debate about “guns versus butter” be held. 

Let me issue this disclaimer at the outset. We will consider Dr. King not for what he is most known as, namely, as a civil rights leader, but instead for what he deserves to be better known as, that is, a peacemaker, a child of God, thereby blessed.

I also hasten to add that I have made no attempt to change the original language employed by Dr. King for the sake of inclusiveness. Each of us can do our own editing.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, presenting the Judaism and World Peace Award to Martin Luther King, Jr., Dec. 7, 1965

It has been reported that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, author of the classic study, The Prophets, introduced Dr. King just 10 days before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, to an assembly of rabbis with these words: “Where in America do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership is of supreme importance to everyone of us… The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of Dr. King.” Why would Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, no less, heap such words of praise on Dr. King? I would suggest, among other reasons, it was because Rabbi Heschel recognized that Dr. King was making the necessary connections between justice and peace, thus articulating a vision of shalom in our warring, unjust world. In short, Rabbi Heschel saw in Dr. King a person possessed with the gifts and graces of a prophet of shalom, a prophetic visionary with the capacity to integrate justice and peace.

Martin Luther King Jr. preaching at Riverside Church, New York City on April 4, 1967. Photo: John C. Goodwin

Now, the Riverside sermon can probably be best put into historical context by citing Dr. King’s own description of what led up to it being preached, as he did in his autobiography.

“…I began the agonizing measurement of government promising words of peace against the baleful, escalating deeds of war.”

“Some of my friends of both races and others who do not consider themselves my friends expressed disapproval because I had been voicing concern over the war in Vietnam. In newspaper columns and editorials, both in the Negro and general press, it was indicated that Martin King, Jr., is “getting out of his depth.” I was chided, even by fellow civil rights leaders, members of Congress, and brothers of the cloth for “not sticking to the business of civil rights.””

“…(A)fter reading (an) article (on) “The Children of Vietnam,” I said to myself, “Never again will I be silent on an issue that is destroying the soul of our nation and destroying thousands and thousands of little children in Vietnam.” I came to the conclusion that there is an existential moment in your life when you must decide to speak for yourself; nobody else can speak for you.”

“I had for too long allowed myself to be a silent onlooker.”

“So often I had castigated those who by silence or inaction condoned and thereby cooperated with the evils of racial injustice… I had to therefore speak out if I was to erase my name from the bombs which fall over North or South Vietnam, from the canisters of napalm. The time had come — indeed it was past due — when I had to disavow and disassociate myself from those who in the name of peace burn, maim, and kill.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“More than that, I had to go from the pulpits and platforms. I had to return to the streets to mobilize men to assemble and petition…for the immediate end of this bloody, immoral, obscene slaughter—for a cause which cries out for a solution before mankind itself is doomed. I could do no less for the salvation of my soul.”

“As I moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart…many persons questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concern, this query has often loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. And when I hear them…I…am greatly saddened that such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. They seem to forget that before I was a civil rights leader, I answered a call, and when God speaks, who can but prophesy.”

Again, Vincent Harding, argues: “The speech not only requires us to struggle once more with the meaning of King, but it also presses us to wrestle, as he did, with all the tangled, bloody, and glorious meaning of our nation…its purpose…its direction…its hope.”

I believe Dr. King discerned that one could no longer advocate for justice without also working for peace. Clearly, it was a momentous revelation, for him, and by extension, the nation, because it provoked a level of controversy that far exceeded any he had generated previously and ignited a degree of hostility that outstripped any he had experienced earlier.

So, no sooner had the benediction been pronounced at the Riverside Church than the vicious attacks on Dr. King began in earnest with “a barrage of negative newspaper editorials” following in its wake, as David J. Garrow noted. “Sometimes we forget,” Harding writes, “that by April 1967, King was a beleaguered public figure.”

The Washington Post editorialized in a symptomatic way. “…(M)any who listened to (Dr. King) with respect (in the past) will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.” What a difference one sermon can make! By contrast, The Christian Century praised the preacher of the “Beyond Vietnam” sermon, describing it as “a magnificent blend of eloquence and raw fact, of searing denunciation and tender wooing, of political sagacity and Christian insight, of tough realism and infinite compassion.” And oh, how differently, any given sermon can be heard.

Let me now simply lift up excerpts from other writings addressing justice and peace.

Martin Luther King Jr. sits in a jail cell at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama

A perspective on Dr. King’s convictions about justice and peace can be discovered in his observations about the religious community in general and the Christian Church in particular. In his celebrated “Letter From Birmingham Jail” of April 16, 1963, Dr. King asks: “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?” He describes the religious community as “largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.” Dr. King declares: “The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”

“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before.”

This analysis of the entrenched nature of the religious community in the status quo informs Dr. King’s outlook on the prospects for social change. He realizes: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” Although not a very promising assessment, it is not a wholly inaccurate one either. Nevertheless, as he noted in his December 10, 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech: “I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.” In other words, the religious community especially should be wary of what Dr. King termed in the Riverside sermon, “our proneness to adjust to injustice,” in order to resist it.

The important point to keep in mind regarding Dr. King’s writings on justice and peace is the linkage he consistently draws between them. Perhaps this point is nowhere better expressed than in “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” which Dr. King preached on December 24, 1967 at Ebenezer Baptist Church, when he noted that “we must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.” In that same sermon, Dr. King enunciated exactly why justice and peace are necessarily construed together: “…(A)ll life is interrelated: We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.” He summarized his basic understanding of this mutuality, this interrelatedness, when he concluded in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail:” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I have tried to get myself out of the way so that Dr. King himself might show through and I hope I have captured something of the spirit of Dr. King in these excerpts from some of his other writings. Now, however, let me turn your attention to the Riverside sermon specifically. I will highlight only a few passages.

Dr. King decried what he called “a society gone mad on war” and indicts his “own government” as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Indeed, this sermon is seasoned with hard-sayings, uttered by one who was as salt of the earth. Again, Dr. King urges us “to see war as the enemy of the poor” and admonishes us “to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.”

He then gets to the heart of the matter with the war in Vietnam. “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.”

And, against what are we to protest? Testing “our latest weapons on them.” Pouring “every new weapon of death into their land.” Dropping “thousands of bombs on a poor weak nation more than eight thousand miles away from (our) shores.” Speaking as a self-described “citizen of the world,” Dr. King maintains: “Somehow this madness must cease.” In the chapter entitled “The World House” from his book called Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. King wrote these words: “All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors.” Therein, he also wrote of the fact that we now live in a new “world-wide neighborhood.” Consequently, Dr. King would claim we must move “beyond Vietnam,” prescient as one would expect a prophet to be, cognizant of a new global village. Why? Because, as he warns us in the same book: “We can no longer afford to worship the God of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation.”

In his Riverside sermon, Dr. King condemns “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.” If you really want to talk about an “axis of evil,” then you must speak of these three: bigotry, poverty and weaponry! This “axis of evil” was encapsulated perfectly by Coffin when he said shortly and inimitably before his death in 2006: “Indeed there is an “axis of evil.” But it is hardly Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. A more likely and far more dangerous trio would be environmental degradation, pandemic poverty, and a world awash with weapons” Of racism, materialism and militarism, “(t)his trio of troubles” (Michael Eric Dyson), Dr. King is clear: “We must see now that (these) evils…are all tied together, and you really can’t get rid of one without getting rid of the others.”

To be sure, we must look “beyond Vietnam,” and see things close to home. For Dr. King saw, as he said at the April 15, 1967 New York City march and rally in Central Park: “The promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam. The bombs in Vietnam explode at home.”

Dr. King lamented the fact that we were not only waging one war, but preparing for the next, another reason for us to look “Beyond Vietnam.” “A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” It was a damning judgment Dr. King reached. Yet, he still offered us the choice between “nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation,” and reminded us “we must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.” As the chief architect of the nonviolent tactics employed by the civil rights movement, the Rev. James Lawson, said recently, we must learn “to stop blessing war.”

In a sermon he later preached back home at Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967, Dr. King was as prophetic as he was adamant, denouncing the nation in a most radical manner. “Don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as His divine messianic force to be—a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America: “You are too arrogant!”” How absolutely uninhibited was this preacher!

Let me comment now on the prophetic vocation of Dr. King. Garrow, in his book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote: “In the last twelve months of his life, King represented a far greater political threat to the reigning American government than he ever had before.” Now, many believe, and I number among them, that by “breaking his silence” on the Vietnam War, Dr. King increased the likelihood of his being silenced by an assassin’s bullet. His words were too heavy; the land could not bear them—or him. The noted biblical scholar, Raymond E. Brown reminded us, “the prophet’s sufferings offer the opportunity for self-examination on what we who consider ourselves God’s people do to our prophets whom God raises up among us.”

We have our relatively new national holiday, with two state exceptions duly noted, and another long weekend trivialized by short getaways and super sales at the nearest mall. Worse than that, many have a view now of Martin Luther King, Jr. far removed from that of the fiery prophet he once was, a domesticated King, if you will, a “rather smoothed-off respectable, national hero…not the King of “Beyond Vietnam,”” as Harding noted. Michael Eric Dyson, author of the controversial book, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr., laments the fact that Dr. King’s birthday celebration has become an occasion for a “sanitized white-washing of his own blood-stained heroism” because, in part, we “want to protect King from the assertion that he was an unpatriotic American.” Indeed: “Aren’t we then ourselves in danger,” asks William Sloane Coffin, “of honoring King as a martyr, while trampling on what he stood for as a prophet…?” We must remember what another of Dr. King’s biographers, Marshall Frady, warned us about: “To hallow a figure is almost always to hollow him.”

The “King Years” chronicler Taylor Branch observed: “Gunfire took Dr. King’s life, but we determine his legacy.” Therefore, it falls to the interreligious community to remember what manner of man Dr. King was and to preserve in the nation’s memory the fact that he was a prophet not without honor except in his own land. He did not try to heal the wounds of his people lightly, prophesying peace, peace, when there is no peace. As Dyson adds, Dr. King’s “prophetic passion was never more righteous than when he took a swing at the false premises of war-mongering that were being pitched to the American public.” And Dr. King refused to prophesy falsely. He had the “moral madness” and the spiritual courage to prophesy only about those things that would be “credible in the presence of burning human flesh,” as one rabbi described it. Dr. King’s ministry was the embodiment of the prophetic vocation and his prophetic vocation provided ample evidence of the moral imperative that we must be constantly “confronted with,” what he called, “the fierce urgency of now.” Dr. “King’s legacy to our country,” in the words of Drew D. Hansen, in his book The Dream, “is the gift of prophecy: a vision of what a redeemed America might look like….”

Thus, the observation of Father Zossima in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov remains altogether timely and tragically still rings true. “Men do not accept their prophets and slay them, but they love their martyrs and worship those whom they have tortured to death.” The man who ultimately shed his own blood for the sake of justice and peace said in the last Sunday sermon he delivered in his lifetime, a mere five days before his death, at Washington’s National Cathedral: “(The) challenge…we face is simply that we must find an alternative to war and bloodshed.” But, regrettably, it appears there will be no end to “smart bombs on dumb missions,” in the words of the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, President Emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Worse, we seem to live in “an atmosphere devoid of urgency,” as Dr. King described it, “devoid of urgency” about war and peace, justice and its absence.

The first step we could take to keep faith with Dr. King’s legacy is to create within the ecumenical and interreligious community and beyond it a new sense of “the fierce urgency of now,” link the alarming array of justice and peace issues that currently confront us, and start to build a new movement. As his daughter Yolanda said it on King Day 2004, we have to get up “off (our) apathy and do something!” We have our marching orders, issued by Dr. King himself: “I see these two struggles as one struggle. There can be no justice without peace, and there can be no peace without justice.”

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