It is enticing as residents of Paradise to see ourselves as separate from the travails of the nation we are citizens of, or from the suffering of the rest of the world. As the warm breezes of the U.S. Virgin Islands lull us into a sense of safety and separation from the darkness that has engulfed our country – and indeed the entire Earth – it is easy to cloak ourselves in bright sun and dazzling beauty forgetting that we are all one.
Allow the words spoken by the man we honor today to awaken us from our napping.
On April 4, 1967 – a year to the day before he was assassinated – at the Riverside Church in Harlem Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the Vietnam War. He was widely criticized at the time for mixing anti-war sentiments with the civil rights movement, which many of his followers and others felt were two separate issues.
While the speech came to be known as “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” it was much more than the mistake of Vietnam he was opposing in what might have been his greatest oration.
Between the lines about the tragedy and ugliness of the war that took millions of lives and wrought irreparable devastation upon the land and survivors on all sides thanks to the irreversible ravages of napalm, agent orange and PTSD, King also addressed the root causes of such mayhem.
“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered,” King said.
In the 53 years since, the military budget has grown exponentially along with the unprecedented chasm between the rich and poor, that King warned against.
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” he said.
In the reviewing of King’s message, it is hard to mistake his prescience. Not only could he see what would happen when all hope of equal opportunity was lost, he foretold – perhaps without really knowing – what damage and hopelessness climate change, which can’t be separate from the materialism he called out, would wreak as we continued to kick the can down the road in the interest of profit and power.
“Procrastination is still the thief of time,” he said. “Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood – it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘Too late.’”
Wisdom, or prophecy? We can only guess, but here’s another warning from the speech in the form of a question that is being asked today as we teeter on the brink of another completely unnecessary and potentially catastrophic conflict in the Middle East. “Is our nation planning to build on political myth again, and then shore it up upon the power of a new violence?”
That question is chilling when considering King died long before the lie of weapons of mass destruction led us to a decades-long war with Iraq that has lined the pockets of rich white men for years, while leaving a trail of hundreds of thousands of dead people of color strewn across the landscape there and brought at least 5,000 American soldiers home in caskets.
While Middle Easterners are not considered a racial category in the U.S. Census, most consider themselves to be “brown”and it is likely most racists in the United States do too, considering the penchant for home-grown terrorists over the last few years to shoot up or bomb mosques and other places occupied by Muslims and “others” they confuse for Muslims – like Sikhs.
But King did not leave his audience at the gathering in what is arguably one of New York City’s largest and best-known houses of worship and peaceful dissent without instructions for change or hope for the future. Love was the hope, he said.
“When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response,” he said. “I’m not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh.
“I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: ‘Let us love one another, for love is God. And everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love … If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.’”
King, despite his obvious despair over the lack of care for the poor, the racism that prevailed and the callousness of most people in power to the suffering around them, still held out hope for the future.
“Perhaps,” he said, “a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement, and pray that our inner being may be sensitive to its guidance. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.”
The choice always belongs to the present. As long as we are still here, still alive, we still have choices. King went against even his supporters to say that.
“Because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned, especially for His suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them,” he said. And as if he could foretell the future – see the children at our borders torn from their parents, held in horrific conditions, dying even, he said, “This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls ‘enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”