Last month we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and April 4th will be the 50th anniversary of his assassination, two very important days but obviously for very different reasons. One celebrates his life while the other mourns his senseless and violent death. February, being Black History Month, brings him to mind again and reminds us why as Americans we have chosen to honor him by setting aside one day each year to remember his life, message, and service to our nation in particular. It is a day to remember a great man who helped to change the world. As is typically the case on ‘his day’, he was talked about in the news, in schools, churches, private and public organizations, as well as in multiple publications. His face was seen on covers of magazines and in some cases even on billboards. We attempt to give him the honor he is due but also remind ourselves of the important issues that cost him his life.
Like the rest of humanity he was fallible and because of his notoriety his faults found their way into public awareness alongside his great contribution to society. But his true humanity was shown in what he chose to give his life to and ultimately sacrifice it for. He was and is a living example of one who “laid down his life for his friend(s)”, because he believed that there is no greater force on earth than love. It is difficult to find many Americans who would not agree that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. changed America in significant and lasting ways and in doing so brought change to our world. But I am quite sure that even he would say there was much more change that needed to happen and which he had hoped to see take place in his lifetime.
If asked what Dr. King’s greatest contribution was, I assume most would cite his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement and possibly comment on how far we have come as a nation in our attitudes towards racial injustice, from changing the very fabric of life and opportunities for those of color all the way to electing the first African American president. But ask these same people what ideologies formed Martin Luther King’s views and guided his passions towards bringing about these changes, and I have a feeling that most would or could not speak about much beyond his well known contribution to the racial divide.
This is not so unusual as it was his greatest achievement and what those of us who lived through those years of watching the protests on TV have etched in our minds. Being a teenager at the time and distracted by much more ‘important issues’ such as boyfriends and the latest trends, it was the dramatic TV images of marches, violence on college campuses, and his “I Have a Dream” speech that initially informed my knowledge of who Dr. King was and what he stood for. Of course my understanding of his contribution to society expanded ‘somewhat’ as I grew into adulthood, but it was not until many years later after raising a son who would eventually challenge my thinking in ways I had never considered, that I would finally answer the above question for myself. What exactly did this most influential man believe beyond civil rights and what were the foundational beliefs that informed his philosophy of equality which he preached so steadfastly to our then very broken society?
For me, coming to know Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. better and understanding what ideals cultivated his life-giving crusade for justice took experiencing some injustice in my own life. It started with seeing my son off to Army basic training the summer after his Jr. year in high school in preparation for West Point Military Academy and watching him come home with a level of disillusionment and newly formed questions, to achieving that five year dream of becoming a cadet only to see him decide to leave the esteemed institution with even more disillusionment, to watching him from afar go through the greatest emotional and spiritual struggle of his life while serving in Iraq as an interrogator, which finally ended in a decision to become a conscientious objector. He then spent the next seven years of his life as a writer and playwright speaking out against violence, war, and injustice and instead for love, peace, and justice. Unfortunately, as was true with Dr. King, he also ended up facing an enemy that took his life while in the midst of what became his greatest mission in life. His death was the result of the same evil that took Dr. King’s life…innate and learned hatred and prejudice resulting in violence, more specifically defined as war. For my son it meant experiencing war and the horror of its consequences. He died of cancer from exposure to toxic substances from burn pits carelessly permitted by our military institution for use throughout Iraq and Afghanistan (illegal in the US for obvious reasons) rather than from a gun, as was the case for Dr. King. But both fatalities emerged from environments of violence, hatred (revenge), and betrayal, the very things that both men spoke out against.
I couldn’t help seeing the resemblance between their lives and deaths one lonely night a few years ago after my son’s passing as I read through tears an article about Dr. King and what he believed, how he went about the mission God had carved out for him, and how his life and message was also cut off so senselessly because of hatred and the lack of value for human life. It became painfully clear as I read that article that there was little difference between the deaths of Dr. King and my son. The choice to choose a path of hatred and revenge, caring little about the consequences for a nation in turmoil or the thousands of innocent people who would become casualties of that revenge, was cut from the same cloth.
However, the words I read from Dr. King that night, while adding more pain to my already broken heart, surprisingly also brought me a sense of hope and inspiration. I realized the words of this strong and committed man of faith, so influential in his own broken humanity, were the same words my son had written and spoken about so often throughout the US and abroad. Their message was the same, and even though God had given Dr. King a bigger stage, they were fighting the same battle with the same armor by loving their neighbors and their enemies and attempting to “overcome evil with good” while encouraging others to do the same. They both believed that love was stronger than hate and that non-violent resistance alongside attempts at reconciliation grounded in love and respect, even and especially for our enemies, was the only way to achieve a harmony that had the potential of leading to lasting peace and justice. I felt grateful and honored on that night to see, even if only in my mind, my son standing beside Dr. King sharing the same vision.
Fast forward from that night to last month and the Sunday night prior to Dr. King’s celebratory day. I had come home from church where we were encouraged to think and pray about the peace and unity that Dr. King worked so hard to achieve. That stimulated my thinking again about Dr. King’s message so I determined to do a bit more of research. I found myself learning even more about Dr. King as I read excerpts from his many speeches, taken from the Liberation Curriculum offered through Stanford University. What I read I revealed his foundational ideology on creating a world of harmony, peace, and justice. The expressed beliefs went beyond racial injustice to injustice of any kind and prejudice of any sort, to the anger and hatred that can pervade a society. It included many of his clearly stated beliefs on war and non-violence.
Dr. King spoke out boldly against war and violence on a global level towards our fellow man as a way to deal with the problems we face or to solve the differences between us. The more I read the more I realized that looking at all of who Martin Luther King was, listening to all that he had to say is rarely done on a local or national level. How often do we talk about these admonitions from Dr. King? When we talk about him or teach our children about his legacy we focus almost exclusively on the Civil Rights Movement and the evil that stems from racial injustice or maybe more recently religious and cultural persecution. While keeping his message alive is necessary and so very important, focusing only on part of his beliefs and work, I believe, is hindering us from letting his message continue to enrich and inform us as a society, expanding our imaginations and allowing us to dream of the world he so boldly and passionately spoke of. Is it not a detriment to our nation and do we not do him a great disservice in telling only part of his story, keeping only part of who he was and part of what he taught at the forefront of our minds and in our memorialized celebrations?
As I reflected on this phenomenon of why it is we choose to focus on his words and actions relating mainly to racial issues at the expense of talking about his views on violence and war, I pondered this question, “Do we do this because his belief in total non-violence is the square peg unable to fit in the round hole of our current nationalistic and militaristic culture?” What would the consequences be for talking about the ‘complete’ ideology that informed Dr. King’s position on racial equality if in fact it spoke out against violence and war and the dangers surrounding our ever- growing militaristic mindset? How would our nationalistic society, which has been so influenced by our now dominant militaristic identity with all of its patriotic rhetoric respond? Would there be uncomfortable silence, cries of outrage, or simply attempts to downplay or reinterpret his very foundational beliefs? Would he be looked on as unpatriotic, too simplistic, or as a religious fanatic as others who do speak out oftentimes are? Or would there simply be an attempt to deny or ignore that very real aspect of his ideology? Are his strong words exhorting and supporting peaceful reconciliation vs. military might no longer compatible with a society literally built around nationalistic pride and heroic adulation offered to our men and women in uniform as we attempt to convince them as well as ourselves that every time they are deployed it is to uphold and preserve our freedom, regardless of the political and social issues that oftentimes muddy the waters for those who look to justify the particular ‘necessary or just violence’? Dr. King clearly stated many times over that there is no such thing as necessary or just violence, only love, if our goal is to create a peaceful and just world. In his lifetime and even more so now, he along with others who continue to speak out against violence, especially as it relates to war, are clearly swimming upstream culturally.
Are we not only fooling ourselves if we talk about wanting peace while enacting or condoning violence? It appears as if we are speaking out of both sides of our mouths? Should we not rather speak with one voice? “Violence towards our fellow man in any form only breeds more violence. Love, on the other hand, never fails but rather heals, restores, and redeems.” If we believe we are to love our neighbors and enemies at home then we must commit ourselves to loving them from afar. If we strive for peace in our homes and our communities because it is the right thing to do then we must hold to the same truths as it relates to mankind as one family under God as well, even at the cost of our own reputation, possessions, and safety, as Dr. King so clearly lived out.
If every man has value and worth, who are we to draw the line in the sand before God and try to ‘justify’ our choices of violence towards our brothers and call it duty and honor or just? We must challenge our own rhetoric which frames our nationalistic pride and ideology of strength and power, so long in the making and consequently so difficult to tear down. But it is only the dismantling of our self made solutions that will allow us to become a true leader of nations through the acquisition of the values that are capable of offering lasting peace; the courage to be humble, the strength to offer compassion, and the power to show love. Despite the greater challenge and varied complications that exist on the grander scale of worldwide relations are we not still called to the same values and accountability when faced with the questions of life and death?
As Americans we have in fact, at the very heart of our Constitution the truths that uphold and strengthen the reasoning to follow such a course, that “all men are created equal with unalienable rights and that we are one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.” It is our Constitution, yes, but proclaiming universal principles and values that should apply to all men equally. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that we have in our own national DNA what it takes to live in this world peaceably. We need only to reevaluate and reconsider the truth and meaning of those words if we desire to live them out with true integrity. Dr. King did just that. So let us ask ourselves, “What is the cost to us as a nation and to our world if we continue to remain silent on the whole of Dr. King’s beliefs and teachings which he held to so firmly and which I am quite sure he would say did not originate with himself but with God, and which he so valiantly reminded us that he was the recipient of as an American under the Constitution himself?” In any case we are missing out on the core of who Dr. King was and what he actually had and still has to offer us. Wisdom grounded in faith and the essential values that have the power to bring great change to the world are still at our disposal if we will but acknowledge and emphasize his whole message, allowing him to continue to instruct us.
It seems clearer than ever today, with the chaos and despair that exists in our communities and around the world, that what we’ve been doing (in fighting our wars) for centuries still isn’t working. As history revealed to Dr. King and is showing us now, if we are willing to stop the speeding train that we are on long enough to reflect on who we want to be as human beings in this world and as a nation, rather than on how we can maintain our status and safety in an attempt to protect our own interests, we may begin to see the changes Dr. King spoke of. We cannot pray and call for peace and justice if we are not willing to make the changes it will require. And there is no doubt that love and humility vs. the grasping for power and safety demands great sacrifice and suffering. But then doesn’t war and violence exact those same consequences and more? Is it not better to sacrifice and suffer for what is good and right stemming from love rather than from what is wrong, the hatred that results from naming our enemies and resorting to violence towards them and the many innocent people caught in the crossfire? Because we are a democracy (which at its core is good and right in so many important ways) it doesn’t automatically assume that our motives and intentions are always pure and altruistic any more than our religious upbringings make us perfect. It takes knowledge and reflection, honesty and humility, fervent action, and willingness to learn from our mistakes to experience true change and the growth that leads towards a more loving and compassionate version of ourselves, singularly and communally. But that is a choice only we can make and to do so requires great courage.
My guess is that today most people would say that they feel anything but safe and protected in our current world where gun violence, drugs, ongoing racism, and global terrorism are all very present realities. And yet these two reasons, protection and safety are among the most common justifications given for our decision to enter into war. Protection and safety are mere illusions when it comes to the reality of war. Those who have experienced the trauma, be it the soldiers who fight them, their familieis, or the innocent civilians who endure and suffer through them can attest to that reality as well as our society as a whole. We are all impacted in one way or another because of violence of any kind anywhere. Violence begets violence and there is no one that escapes that reality.
Dr. King spoke to this tragedy in clear and concise words. But somehow as a people we continue to look through a tarnished lens in the face of peril and come away grasping at the most natural and obvious choice towards military power and might, maybe because they are concrete and we can touch and feel weapons, aircraft, and, fellow soldiers at our backs. We believe we can trust in all of the training our soldiers receive, specific orders, and strategic plans for strikes and sweeps with weapons in our hands, above our heads, and on the ground. It all feels like something we can ‘do’ in the moment. Everything else seems impractical, impotent, and unable to give us a feeling of strength and power. And tragically, at this point, the question of violence and killing other human beings does not seem to be the deciding factor in determining the prospect of war. Rather it has become a question of when, how, and where? And it seems we have been conditioned to always understand it to be for the purpose of ‘securing our freedoms’, a virtue that is held as one of if not the highest virtue for any man or woman in our patriotic culture. Dr. King pleaded with us to trust in the virtues that promise a different kind of freedom, freedom to love our fellow man and commit ourselves to finding new and better ways to living under the same sky.
Maybe it’s time to honor Dr. King in the way he deserves, by taking the time to look much closer at all that he believed and had to say and let his prophetic words continue to teach us. Below is a link to read for yourself more of what this great man in history had to say about the bigger picture, the relationship between mankind as a whole. And to the extent that we read and genuinely contemplate his words, so relevant then and now, we just may find ourselves more open to consider a new way of looking at the world and a truth that has the power to change not only our minds and hearts but can “set us (all) free” to love and live in the harmony that even Dr. King himself said, “could become much more than a dream. It could become a reality”.