These are dark days, both literally and figuratively; the days continue to shorten in the northern hemisphere as we near the winter solstice, and injustice continues to plague much of the world thanks to leaders with little foresight (or insight). At times like this I look for light, wherever I may find it, particularly fellow peacemakers both living and dead.
As President Barack Obama continues to wield the still mighty sword of the fading empire I find myself referring to Martin Luther King Jr's Beyond Vietnam speech as a meditation on the parallels of the U.S. of the 1960's with the U.S. of today; and the parallels are striking. They are so striking that one could easily take Dr. King's Beyond Vietnam speech, originally delivered at the Riverside Church, New York, NY, on April 4, 1967, and change key words like Vietnam with Afghanistan, and some of the dollar amounts when referring to the cost of the war, and the speech would resonate as if it had been written today.
One reason that the Beyond Vietnam speech resonates as clearly today as it did over 42 years ago is that it is a speech about empire, and we have been living through empires since Biblical times. Jesus, that revolutionary Jew, lived in the time of empire, and was one of its victims. Today, the victims of the empire are many, and are being decimated to feed the machinery of the massive, military-industrial complex that feeds on the blood of its victims.
Many of us now realize that those in positions of political power, for the most part, will not solve problems such as poverty, war and global warming. We have seen for far too long that powerful interests - financial, industrial and military - are far too deeply embedded in political structures to allow politicians to exercise the will or needs of the people.
And so today babies are being born into an empire just as a baby was born just over 2000 years ago, and each of those children will have the potential to grow into fully functioning human beings, and perhaps into nonviolent revolutionaries with prophetic voice, challenging the structures of power, and leading others to build a world where peace and justice reign.
Dr. King was one of those nonviolent revolutionaries and prophetic voices; he was one of the greatest human rights leaders of all time. By 1967 Dr. King had become one of the country’s most prominent opponents of the Vietnam War as well as a staunch critic of overall United States foreign policy. In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Dr. King made a significant leap from fighting for civil rights for African-Americans to morally challenging U.S. dominion over the rest of the world. The “Beyond Vietnam” speech resonates as strongly today as it did then.
Here is a variation on that speech, in a rare audio recording, delivered sometime soon after he gave the full speech at the Riverside Church in New York City in 1967. It is worth a listen, and I hope you will agree that it is part of his beautiful legacy that beckons each of us to continue the long struggle for peace and justice and to "go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” Is that not also the legacy of a child born into the empire 2000 years ago???
Read the full text of Dr. King's Beyond Vietnam speech at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute.