Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
In the half-century since his tragic death at the age of 39, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been turned into a national idol. His birthday has been made a public holiday. His memorial stands in the heart of our capital city, close to the memorials of our greatest presidents. His name is invoked by politicians on both the left and the right, treated almost as sacrosanct. In the process of being glorified, however, King has been domesticated, sanitized, and tamed. His powerful voice, which once sent tremors down the spines of the power elites, now speaks in muffled tones. His speeches are quoted selectively, stripped of their fiercest and most insistent words. Nowadays we can even visit his memorial in D.C., read the quotations blazoned on the walls, and still chat blandly about the weather and the baseball scores.
MLK is most remembered for his “I Have a Dream” speech, which in the mid-1960s became the anthem of the civil rights movement. But King was more than just a civil rights leader representing the concerns of African Americans. He was above all a man of deep faith who was ready to follow the call of conscience no matter where it led him, even into dangerous waters. He stood up against all travesties of human dignity, against all violations against the integrity of the human person, without concern for the identity of the victims.
Committed to the essential unity of justice and love, he saw deeply into the forces that distorted justice and desecrated love. He particularly decried the “triple scourge” of poverty, racism, and militarism, which he regarded as a self-reinforcing trinity of evil. He marched on behalf of the poor, no matter what the color of their skin. He denounced racism wherever he found it, not only in the violence against black people here in the U.S., but in the imperialism by which the white nations of the West subjugated and exploited the dark peoples of the global East and South. And most poignantly, he confronted our nation headon for its engagement in a war—the war in Vietnam–that resulted in horrific deaths, relentless tragedies, and the betrayal of the ideals for which we stood.
King stated his public opposition to the Vietnam War in a speech he gave at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, just a year before his death. The speech, called “A Time to Break Silence,” was perhaps his greatest and most profound. It was, he said, a speech he had to give above objections from friends and colleagues, who warned him it would detract from his role as a civil rights leader. But, he said, it was a speech he felt bound to deliver “because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” To remain silent, he said, would have been a betrayal of his own inner calling.
One of the reasons for his opposition to the war was its impact on social policy here in the U.S. He realized that the enormous costs of the war would drain funds slated for social programs “like some demonic destructive tube,” and thus he saw the war as “an enemy of the poor.” King pointed out the bitter irony of the war: America was taking young black men and sending them to fight in Asia for rights they were denied in Georgia and Harlem. But his concern extended past the impact of the war on American citizens. His compassion was universal. He described our own government at the time as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” and as a Christian minister and follower of Christ, he felt compelled “to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls its enemy.”
In the last part of his speech he drew attention to the spiritual dimensions of the war. He calls the war “but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” and he puts his finger exactly on what that malady is: the quest for “the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.” He insists that our nation must undergo “a radical revolution of values,” that “we must rapidly begin the shift from being a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.”
To conquer the “giant triplet” of poverty, racism, and militarism requires a fundamental change in moral orientation based on a deep respect for the sanctity of the human person. We must, he insisted, adopt a scheme of values that gives people precedence over “things,” over the mere trappings of wealth and power. In advocating such a shift, King had to launch a verbal attack on the systems of power and privilege that enable the few to acquire vast accumulations of wealth while denying billions worldwide the means to a secure and fulfilling life.
King saw true compassion as requiring more than just “foreign aid,” more than random acts of philanthropy. To put real compassion into effect, he held, changes were required in the very underpinnings of our social system and political economy, changes that would eliminate poverty and glaring inequalities in wealth. “True compassion,” he declared, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”
The kind of transformations necessary, while entailing specific policy choices, are not matters merely for economists and policy wonks locked away in their think-tanks. The transformation rests on a fundamental moral pivot that must take place in the human heart. What is required above all, he said, is “an all-embracing and unconditional love for all humankind.” This love cannot be merely interpersonal, a private transaction operative at the individual level. In an interconnected world, he held, its reach must become global: “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to humanity as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”
Despite the passage of almost fifty years, King’s words have not lost their cogency and power. To the contrary, they have become even bolder, more insightful, and more challenging. When 1% of the world’s population owns 50% of the world’s wealth, when the bottom 50% of the world owns just 1% of its wealth, it is clear that our priorities are skewed. When 10 million people die each year from hunger and hunger-related illnesses, our souls have been soiled by a moral blemish. When we spend trillions of dollars on weapons of war, but claim we don’t have the funds to eradicate poverty, to build good schools, to provide universal health care to all our citizens, and to pay decent salaries, King’s words sound like the crashing of thunder: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Yet spiritual death is not our inevitable fate. These disparities are not due to chance or fortune; they are the result of deliberate choices, of policies and practices imposed and reinforced by those who benefit from them. We can turn all this around. To rise to the occasion, he says, we must join hands in the difficult task that lies ahead, the task of “re-dedicating ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.” The new world must be one where justice reigns, guided by the spirit of love. To establish such a world, King says, we must extend to our brothers and sisters whose lives are ravaged by poverty, violence, and oppression a helping hand—“a message of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost.” The choice, King tells us, is ours, “and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this critical moment of human history.”
At the very end of this speech, King reminds us that the task is urgent: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” The choice King presents us with has become charged with even stronger urgency due to a factor King could not have foreseen back in the 1960s: the onset of climate change, which threatens to decimate the life-sustaining resources of whole populations and make our environment unlivable. This gives us a still wider perspective than that available to King and throws at us a new moral demand: we must learn to revere, not only human beings whatever their race or nationality, but the terrestrial and cosmic field in which human life unfolds. We can be sure that if King were alive today, he would be at the forefront of the campaign to protect the climate.
But economic conditions today are still very much as they were in King’s time, only more so. The globalized economy lavishes ever more wealth and power on the transnational corporate and financial elite, while billions of people still live in desperate poverty, struggling just to survive from one day to the next. The U.S. is still embroiled in wars driven by economic ambition, propping up corrupt regimes and reducing once stable nations to shambles. The choice before us has become even more critical, charged with the fiercer urgency brought on by a changing climate. Yet in its essence the choice remains very much the same: Do we make the pursuit of limitless wealth and power the center of our focus, thereby inviting nemesis upon our heads? Or do we make that fundamental shift, that difficult shift toward justice and love, and thereby find a path away from the abyss, the path to a world that works for everyone?