Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Parables (part 4)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan numerous times in his career (the most famous being “I See the Promised Land,” which King preached on April 3, 1968, the last night of his life). The parable plays a major role in one of King’s most significant sermons, “A Time to Break Silence,” an address at Riverside Church in New York City, on April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day King would be assassinated.

In this sermon, King very publicly opposes the Vietnam War and links his opposition directly to the Civil Rights movement. He had stated his opposition to the war on several previous occasions, but this sermon was a keynote address for the national conference of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. Opposing the war meant opposing President Johnson (who was escalating the war), with whom King had worked to pass the civil rights and voting rights bills, and who had announced the War on Poverty. King thought, however, that the War on Poverty had shown great promise for helping reduce poverty but then the profligate spending on the Vietnam War eviscerated those poverty programs. The war against the people of Vietnam had thus also become a war against the poor in the United States. In addition, the Vietnam War was being fought by an extraordinarily disproportional number of black young men “to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem” (King 2015: 203-204).

King could not keep silent in the face of “such cruel manipulation of the poor,” but there was one other concern that led him to speak out passionately against the war. For years he had preached that social change should be achieved through nonviolent social action, but now the United States government was using massive violence to bring about change in Vietnam. King realizes:

. . . I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government (204).

That line—that the United States was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”—was a shocking pronouncement for the majority of Americans who saw themselves as the pre-eminent force for good in the world. 

Instead, King laments, the United States commits numerous atrocities against the Vietnamese people: supporting the vicious dictator, Premier Diem; helping to crush the unified Buddhist church; moving people into concentration camps; bombing them; poisoning their water; destroying a million acres of their crops; and possibly killing a million people—primarily children (207-208).

King speaks as a civil rights leader “to save the soul of America.” He calls for an end to the war and also for reparations for the damage the United States had done in Vietnam. Yet he also calls for a much deeper change of heart: a radical revolution of values where the United States shifts from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society, one which conquers the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism (214). Here King cites the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate true compassion upon one’s “enemies”:

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that 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. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death (214-215).


King’s opposition to the war in Vietnam not only provoked the wrath of President Johnson, it also brought vehement denunciations in the media, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, and, in 1967, King’s anti-war position was extremely unpopular among U.S. citizens overall (Dyson 2000: 61).

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