"War is the greatest threat to public health." - Gino Strada, Italian war surgeon and founder of the UN-recognized Italian NGO Emergency

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Martin Luther King Jr: Digging Deeper

MLK, GZ and the Heart of Nonviolence

(Originally published in the January 2013 edition of the Ground Zero Newsletter, http://www.gzcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/January-2013.pdf  by Leonard Eiger; This essay may be copied and distributed freely.)

"When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men” (Martin Luther King Jr.).

This month Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action honors the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. on January 19th at The Center and on January 21st in the MLK Seattle March.
Just what does an organization working to abolish nuclear weapons have in common with Dr. King?  The quote above by Dr. King sums it up, speaking to the root – or what should be called the taproot – of violence in the hearts of human beings that spurs “scientific power” to “outrun moral power,” thereby threatening all humanity with nuclear weapons.  

When we hear about Dr. King – generally once a year around the time of his birthday, January 15th – the corporate news media refers to him as “the slain civil rights leader.” But Dr. King was so much more than that.  The TV images the media convey are always the same ones – battling segregation in Birmingham in 1963; reciting his dream of racial harmony in Washington in 1963; marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama in 1965; and lying dead on the motel balcony in Memphis in 1968.

In the early 1960s when Dr. King was challenging rampant, legalized racial discrimination in the South, most major media were his allies, showing graphic footage of police dogs, bullwhips and cattle prods used against southern African Americans who sought the right to vote or eat at a public lunch counter.

After the passage of the Civil Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965 Dr. King began challenging our nation’s fundamental priorities. He maintained that the civil rights laws meant nothing without human rights, including economic rights. He spoke out against the huge gaps between rich and poor, and called for "radical changes in the structure of our society" to redistribute wealth and power.

Dr. King did not suddenly become an opponent of war (and nuclear weapons) once the major civil rights struggle was over.  As early as 1954 he said in one of his sermons that “the great danger facing us today is not so much the atomic bomb that was created by physical science.  Not so much the atomic bomb that you can put in an airplane and drop on the heads of hundreds and thousands of people – as dangerous as that is.  But the real danger confronting civilization today is that atomic bomb which lies in the hearts and souls of men, capable of exploding into the vilest of hate and into the most damaging selfishness – that’s the atomic bomb we’ve got to fear today.”

Dr. King understood that the overt manifestations of violence – war and nuclear weapons – were deadly symptoms of a much deeper malady of the human heart.  He understood violence all too well, both through experiencing it firsthand and through a deep study of Christian and Gandhian nonviolence.

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. He spoke of the difficulty of working for peace in an atmosphere of mass conformity. “Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.”

He went on to say that, “the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.  We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.” There is no other choice for us, because, “silence is betrayal.”

 Dr. King saw the connection between war and the evisceration of social programs in this country. He “knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam [or Iraq and Afghanistan today] continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.” Dr. King saw “war as an enemy of the poor”.

Dr. King spoke of “a far deeper malady within the American spirit” that, of course, is greed. He said that it is our "refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments" that governs our foreign policy, and makes the United States the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He called for a “radical revolution of values” wherein we “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” He said that playing “the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside…will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

As a true modern-day prophet Dr. King was not afraid to warn people in the U.S. that, “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 hammered away at the need for everyone to speak out and use the most creative methods of protest possible, not just against the war, but also for “significant and profound change in American life and policy.” He believed that, “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

Ground Zero has, for over 35 years, carried on in the spirit of nonviolent direct action as we, too, seek “to keep the world from committing the suicide of nuclear war.”  In a grand experiment in truth we “explore the meaning and practice of nonviolence from a perspective of deep spiritual reflection, providing a means for witnessing to and resisting all nuclear weapons” (from Ground Zero’s mission statement). 

Michael Honey, in his book “Going Down the Jericho Road”, spoke clearly to King’s commitment to nonviolent direct action in a passage about James Lawson, who worked closely with King.  “Like King, he [Lawson] spoke of ‘soul force’ or satyagraha, as the crucial ingredient needed to keep the world from committing the suicide of nuclear war and to defeat racism.  For him, pacifism meant: ‘We will make the choice according to the methods that we use, not according to the ends that we seek.’”

For me that statement goes to the heart of Ground Zero.  Although we seek an end to nuclear weapons, the end(s) do not justify just any means.  We understand the dangers of compromising the spirit of nonviolence in order to hasten the process.  We understand that we may not see the fruits of our labors in our lifetime(s), yet we continue speaking out and resisting nonviolently, unabated in the struggle, knowing that the alternative is unspeakable.  There is no other choice for us because “silence is betrayal” [to future generations].

A very public display of Dr. King's prophetic message -
at Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action's MLK Nonviolent Direct Action
at the Bangor Trident ballistic missile submarine base in 2012
As we prepare to celebrate Dr. King this month and rededicate ourselves to the long struggle to abolish nuclear weapons I think it appropriate to let him have the last word, something to create a broad perspective for us to live into:
“It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.”  --Martin Luther King, Jr., Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution

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