Thoughts on Martin Luther King's Speech "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" and its Applicability to the War on Iraq

Sunday, 6 April 2003

On 4 April 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered an address at Riverside Church, New York City, entitled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence." In it he called on Americans to oppose the war in Vietnam as an affront to justice and the death-knell of social programs for the poor that he had long advocated. In honor of the thirty-sixth anniversary of that occasion, and because Dr. King's words resonate so powerfully in these dark days of yet another ill-conceived, unjust war perpetrated by the United States on a poor Third World country, I give his speech in full, interspersed with commentary applying his words to the current situation in Iraq.

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. 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 perplexed 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.

Many people of conscience today are speaking out against the war on Iraq. Many who favor the war, however, refuse to acknowledge their right to dissent from government policy, labeling it unpatriotic, or even treasonous. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky, speaking of an interview reporter Peter Arnett gave to Iraqi television (in which he expressed mild reservations concerning certain U.S. decisions in the war), said the following: "I think Mr. Arnett should be met at the border and arrested should he come back to America. We all firmly believe in the First Amendment which protects the freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly. However, no U.S. citizen should be allowed to provide aid, and comfort, through false information, to the enemy during wartime." Clearly Sen. Bunning does not believe the First Amendment at all if he can call for the arrest of a person simply for expressing an opinion different from his. Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and every other ruthless dictator the world has ever known would agree with his sentiments. Is this the kind of America that our soldiers are fighting and dying for in Iraq?

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found 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. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation's history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.

Many religious leaders in America are again setting aside "smooth patriotism," calling the faithful to examine both history and their own consciences. A recent survey in the U.S. indicates that only 10% of Americans list their religious beliefs as of primary significance in determining their views on the war, and the voices of religious leaders often go unheeded by their constituencies in the pews--including many in the current administration. Still, they speak out. Leaders of almost all major Christian groups firmly oppose the war (with the exception of Southern Baptist leaders, who advocated going to war). It is indeed ironic that the president, who listed Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher (maybe he couldn't think of any others, or didn't know how to pronounce Kierkegaard?) during a presidential debate, ignores some of Jesus' most basic teachings: "Blessed are the peacemakers," "Love your enemies," "Bless those who curse you."

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don't mix, they say. Aren't you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.

A concern for human rights is intimately bound up with the call for peace. Nobel Peace Prize winners are unanimous in their opposition to the war on Iraq. Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and others have spoken out against it. Two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Jody Williams, were arrested for protesting the war outside the White House. History honors great peacemakers over great warmongers, yet all too often people are blinded to the realities of their own time, favoring war over peace again and again. Nevertheless, we only have a Nobel Peace Prize, not a Nobel War Prize, and that should remind us which is more important.

In the light of such tragic misunderstandings, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church--the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate--leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.

I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia.

Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they can play in a successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reason to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides.

The situation in Iraq, like that in Vietnam, is certainly ambiguous. Few in the U.S. support Saddam Hussein, who has been an oppressive, brutal leader. The vast majority of Americans, peace activists included, will be glad to see him go. Saddam Hussein may well have killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis during his years in power, but does that justify the U.S. killing hundreds of thousands more? In fact, since the first Gulf War, the U.S. and its allies have been responsible for the deaths of even more Iraqis, most since the war ended and draconian sanctions were imposed on the devastated country. Another ambiguity involves U.S. support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, when he was responsible for using chemical weapons on his enemies. At the time, the U.S.--which was fully aware of what he had done--did not condemn him, and in fact the U.S. apparently tried to divert blame for the use of chemical weapons to Iran. These and other ambiguities, however, do not justify unleashing the greatest bombing campaign the world has ever seen on a country already weakened from years of war and sanctions.

Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the NLF, but rather to my fellow Americans, who, with me, bear the greatest responsibility in ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents.

The Importance of Vietnam

Since I am a preacher by trade, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor--both black and white--through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Just as the Vietnam War spelled the end of the Great Society--almost before it had a chance to begin--so the current war on Iraq is exacerbating the problems with an already troubled economy. The annual budget surpluses during the last few years of the Clinton era have already turned into the largest budget deficits in U.S. history, and the $75 billion price tag for the first month of the war, coupled with ridiculously foolish and unjust tax cuts for the wealthy, will make the lives of those in poverty that much harder. There will be little money for social programs, for military programs take priority. Schools will continue to crumble and class sizes continue to increase so that we can buy more cruise missiles at $500,000 apiece (at least we can take some comfort in the fact that the accuracy rate of these high-priced missiles might be somewhat higher than the current high school graduation rate). Those without health care will continue to struggle without it, while we spend a couple of billion dollars on the public relations stunt of binding the wounds of those we've bombed--those who weren't killed, of course.

Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

People of color are still disproportionately represented in the U.S. armed forces. Ironically, while these young men and women are fighting and dying in Iraq, the administration is fighting to roll back what strides toward equality they've made through affirmative action programs. Maybe they think nobody's paying attention. Maybe they're right.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years--especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked--and rightly so--what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and 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. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

The U.S. remains by far the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today. Maybe it's because of the level of violence on our own streets that we view human life as so cheap. Hundreds of murders, mostly committed with handguns or assault weapons, occur annually in every major U.S. city. The government is involved in the act as well, conducting legalized murders of convicted criminals at an ever-increasing rate. The U.S. Attorney General even arrogates to himself the authority to override state decisions and laws to maximize the chance of obtaining an execution in specific cases. How can we honor Martin Luther King with a national holiday, yet refuse to heed his critique of the use of violence in American society?

For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a civil rights leader?" and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: "To save the soul of America." We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath --
America will be!
Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.

Far from being traitors and unpatriotic, U.S. citizens who oppose the war on Iraq do so because we love our country. We believe that this war, and the mentality that allowed it to happen, will bring untold harm to the United States. Our stature as a leader of nations will diminish as we lose the respect of other countries. Our ability to critique the ills of others will disappear as we abrogate international treaties and violate international laws. We are even likely to suffer economically as nations disgusted at U.S. arrogance begin looking for other places from which to import goods. Worst of all, we are in danger of becoming a nation without a moral center as we abandon our principles in pursuit of political and economic expediency.

As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission--a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for "the brotherhood of man." This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men--for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the "Vietcong" or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?

My daughter asked me the other day, "How can someone be a Christian and support the war?" I didn't have a good answer for her. My own understanding of the call of Christ precludes the use of violence except in self-defense or defense of others, and even then only to the least extent possible. There may be occasions in the current state of the world in which the use of violence is necessary to prevent an even greater injustice (see my article, "The Unjust War Theory"), but those occasions are rare, and the war on Iraq certainly does not qualify, especially since it is being waged in contravention of U.N. authority. As someone who reveres Jesus as the Prince of Peace, I am dumbfounded by people who purport to be Christians yet seem to revel in this war (the enthusiasm for the war by people I've heard on "Christian" radio stations is particularly disgusting to me). In what way is the gospel "good news" for the Iraqi child who has lost a leg, an Iraqi woman who has lost a child, or even an Iraqi soldier who has lost his entire family? I'm reminded of the words of Paul to the churches of Galatia, who had abandoned the gospel in favor of a different, perverted gospel. Is the Christian gospel still good news for all, or is it only for the elect (i.e., the U.S. and our allies)?

Finally, as I try to delineate for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place, I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.

This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and all other world religions teach the importance of protecting the weak and helpless, and surely the victims of war qualify for that designation. Furthermore, the very concept of One God, who created the world and everyone in it--an idea common to all monotheistic religions--demands that worshipers of God consider all other humans children of God. Who, then, is our enemy, but our own brother or sister? We may disagree with our siblings, and we may even fight with them on occasion, but we don't hate them, and we don't kill them. The bond of family ties us to one another. Perhaps when religious beliefs have had a real impact on a larger number of people around the world, we'll finally understand that we share the planet and its resources with other children of God, and treat them both accordingly.

Strange Liberators

And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond to compassion my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.

The parallels between Vietnam and Iraq are chilling. Iraqis, too, have lived under the curse of war for almost three decades, and their suffering continues to get worse. America promises a better future, and perhaps it will be better for American and British oil companies, but will it really be better for the Iraqi people?

They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation, and before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its re-conquest of her former colony.

Surely the people of Iraq must also see Americans as strange liberators. After supporting Saddam Hussein during the decade-long Iran-Iraq War, both because of our hatred of Iran in the wake of the taking of American hostages during the Iranian revolution and because American leaders believed that Saddam Hussein provided a necessary secular counterbalance to Islamist Iran, Saddam Hussein thought he could do anything without drawing the ire of his erstwhile American supporters. When he invaded Kuwait, he found out that he was wrong. American forces, supported by a true coalition of more than thirty countries, drove him back within his borders. However, when the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south rebelled against the tyrant, they found out that U.S. support was not to be forthcoming. Now, after twelve years of punishing sanctions--punishing to the average Iraqi, not to Saddam Hussein and his cohorts--the U.S. is bombing Iraq with a ferocity never before seen. Claims that only Saddam and his minions are the targets are small comfort to the families of the hundreds of Iraqi civilians who have already died and to the thousands who have been wounded. With liberators like these, maybe they can do without liberation?

Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not "ready" for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination, and a government that had been established not by China (for whom the Vietnamese have no great love) but by clearly indigenous forces that included some Communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.

For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to re-colonize Vietnam.

The history of Iraq since 1918 is one of imperialist interference. First, the country that was carved out of the carcass of the Ottoman Empire after World War I contained a disparate collection of populations, including large numbers of Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites. For years after being granted "independence" by the Allied Powers, Iraq continued to be under the thumb of the British, who were charged with overseeing the Iraq "mandate." Although the British officially left in the late 1950s, Western powers have continued to interfere in Iraqi politics, sometimes in support of the country and sometimes in opposition. The Soviet Union--and its successor, the Russian republic--has also thrown its weight around in Iraq. One can only imagine how the nascent American republic would have reacted in 1781 had European powers tried to control the development of the U.S. after it had gained independence from England. Now, once again, America and Britain are attempting to control the politics of Iraq, and we are threatening the peace in the entire region.

Before the end of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of the reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at re-colonization.

America continues to be impressed with its huge financial and military supplies, believing that those who can't be bought can be forced to submit because of our superior firepower. We should have learned from Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s that threats of force are often ineffective, and Turkey has shown us within the last couple of months that offers of huge bribes don't always sway a government, much less its people. To think that we can buy off or knock off any country that opposes us is not only arrogant, it is dangerous. If America doesn't amend its ways, and soon, there is little doubt that its own people will suffer in ways we have not even imagined.

After the French were defeated it looked as if independence and land reform would come again through the Geneva agreements. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators--our chosen man, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly routed out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords and refused even to discuss reunification with the north. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by U.S. influence and then by increasing numbers of U.S. troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem's methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictatorships seemed to offer no real change--especially in terms of their need for land and peace.

America's support of Saddam Hussein for years is reminiscent of our support for Diem in Vietnam. Is there no one in the current administration with even a passing knowledge of history? We were all aware that Bush knew nothing about either world history or international affairs before he was elected, but surely he could have hired people to cover this personal shortcoming. Instead, he hired right-wing ideologues with no grasp of the trends of history, but a firm grasp of how they wanted to remake both the Middle East and the entire world for the "benefit" of the United States.

The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy--and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us--not their fellow Vietnamese--the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go--primarily women and children and the aged.

The Iraqis, like the Vietnamese a generation ago, already consider Americans to be their enemies more than Saddam Hussein, who has never been particularly popular. In fact, by dropping bombs on Iraqi cities and killing and maiming Iraqi civilians, we are making Saddam Hussein more and more popular with his people.

They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one "Vietcong"-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them--mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children, degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

The parallels with Iraq continue. Gulf War I poisoned their water and land with tons of depleted uranium shells. Now we're actually selling water to the people we're liberating (actually, we've allowed favored Iraqis to sell water brought by British and American ships--it's never too early to learn the benefits of capitalism!). Iraqi hospitals are full of those wounded by our bombs and missiles, and Iraqi cemeteries are overflowing with corpses, courtesy of Iraq's red, white, and blue liberators.

What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?

It remains to be seen what kind of administration the Americans will install in post-Saddam Iraq, but choosing an adamant pro-Israeli army officer like retired general Jay Garner doesn't bode well for Iraqi acceptance of American rule.

We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation's only non-Communist revolutionary political force--the unified Buddhist church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What liberators?

Now there is little left to build on--save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call fortified hamlets. The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these? Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These too are our brothers.

King understood what too many Americans don't understand--or don't accept--that all peoples are our brothers and sisters. They are our equals, and we must treat them as such. They may need our help to rebuild the country that we've destroyed, but more than that, they need our respect. No, these people who are heirs to the oldest civilization on earth, who have endured wars and hardship for millennia, and who have had to endure years of abuse by both Saddam Hussein and the U.S. and its allies--these people deserve our respect.

Perhaps the more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies. What of the National Liberation Front--that strangely anonymous group we call VC or Communists? What must they think of us in America when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the south? What do they think of our condoning the violence which led to their own taking up of arms? How can they believe in our integrity when now we speak of "aggression from the north" as if there were nothing more essential to the war? How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem and charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings even if we do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence. Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.

When U.S. officials try to demonize Iraqi suicide bombers as "terrorists"--a code word that carries no real meaning because of its extensive abuse, but that is intended to bear the connotation of evil or even subhuman, much as the labels "witch" or "communist" did in earlier generations--all they are doing is perpetuating negative stereotypes of Iraqis to gullible Americans. If Americans, many of whom are as woefully ignorant of history as the current administration, buy into this semantic pretzel, they will only be blinded to the fact that Iraqis, along with the rest of the world, accord more compassion to people who are willing to sacrifice their lives to repel an invading army that to the invaders themselves.

How do they judge us when our officials know that their membership is less than twenty-five percent Communist and yet insist on giving them the blanket name? What must they be thinking when they know that we are aware of their control of major sections of Vietnam and yet we appear ready to allow national elections in which this highly organized political parallel government will have no part? They ask how we can speak of free elections when the Saigon press is censored and controlled by the military junta. And they are surely right to wonder what kind of new government we plan to help form without them--the only party in real touch with the peasants. They question our political goals and they deny the reality of a peace settlement from which they will be excluded. Their questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to build on political myth again and then shore it up with the power of new violence?

Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.

Unfortunately, America is no more mature as a nation now than we were during the Vietnam era. After September 11, Americans asked, "Why do they hate us so?" and Bush answered, "They hate us because of our freedoms." No, Mr. President, they hate us because of our duplicity, our interfering in the affairs of other nations, our shameless worldwide self-promotion, and our unconditional support of the nation of Israel, even under its current war-criminal prime minister, Ariel Sharon. If Bush doesn't even understand why people in the Muslim world (and elsewhere) sometimes have bad feelings toward the U.S., he cannot possibly take any action that will improve the situation. Or maybe it's not a matter of lack of understanding. It seems likely that Bush and his ideological cronies just don't care what the "little people" of the world think--people like Old Europe, or the terrorist regimes ripe for the changing, or the people of Latin America who would like to choose their own leaders without constant U.S. interference. Let them eat cake!

So, too, with Hanoi. In the north, where our bombs now pummel the land, and our mines endanger the waterways, we are met by a deep but understandable mistrust. To speak for them is to explain this lack of confidence in Western words, and especially their distrust of American intentions now. In Hanoi are the men who led the nation to independence against the Japanese and the French, the men who sought membership in the French commonwealth and were betrayed by the weakness of Paris and the willfulness of the colonial armies. It was they who led a second struggle against French domination at tremendous costs, and then were persuaded to give up the land they controlled between the thirteenth and seventeenth parallel as a temporary measure at Geneva. After 1954 they watched us conspire with Diem to prevent elections which would have surely brought Ho Chi Minh to power over a united Vietnam, and they realized they had been betrayed again.

One has to wonder how post-war Iraq will handle the ethnic divisions in the land, especially with the Kurds in the north who would dearly love an independent state. If Kurdistan doesn't achieve statehood, will there be a new rebellion? If an independent Kurdistan is formed, will Turkey and Iran allow it to survive? Will Shiites continue to accept Sunni rule? If the majority Shiites gain power, will they ally themselves with Shiite Iran? These are difficult questions, questions too complex to be answered by single-minded ideologues, questions too entrenched to be solved by bombs. Will the people of Iraq feel liberated a year or two from now, or will they feel betrayed yet again?

When we ask why they do not leap to negotiate, these things must be remembered. Also it must be clear that the leaders of Hanoi considered the presence of American troops in support of the Diem regime to have been the initial military breach of the Geneva agreements concerning foreign troops, and they remind us that they did not begin to send in any large number of supplies or men until American forces had moved into the tens of thousands.

There is no parallel between Vietnam and Iraq in terms of diplomacy, for the current American regime doesn't know the meaning of the word. Bush's idea of diplomacy is "my way or the highway," regardless of whether he is speaking to friend or foe. Donald Rumsfeld has said repeatedly in recent days that there will be no negotiations with current leaders in Iraq--not that attempts at negotiation during the Vietnam War were particularly successful. Since we're putting all our eggs in the basket of military superiority, let's hope it's the right strategy. We don't seem to have a fallback position.

Hanoi remembers how our leaders refused to tell us the truth about the earlier North Vietnamese overtures for peace, how the president claimed that none existed when they had clearly been made. Ho Chi Minh has watched as America has spoken of peace and built up its forces, and now he has surely heard of the increasing international rumors of American plans for an invasion of the north. He knows the bombing and shelling and mining we are doing are part of traditional pre-invasion strategy. Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony can save him when he hears the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor weak nation more than eight thousand miles away from its shores.

What, American leaders lie to their own people? Unheard of! I'm sure Bush was telling the truth for all those months when he denied to the American people that he had made up his mind to go to war--all the while building up an invasion force in Kuwait and in the Persian Gulf. I'm sure the U.S. government has incontrovertible evidence of the existence and location of biological and chemical weapons in Iraq, despite the fact that the inspectors couldn't find them, our troops haven't uncovered them, and Iraq hasn't used them. I'm sure that the U.S. administration believes that Saddam Hussein was in some way responsible for the attack on America on September 11, even though key administration officials had been calling for an invasion of Iraq for years before the attack. I'm sure that the secretary of war (oops, I mean defense) was really worried about the threat that Iraq presented to America, despite the fact that we spend about 100 times more on military preparations--every single year!

At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless on Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.

I have to believe that this is one way that America has improved since Vietnam. I doubt that many soldiers will become cynical about American efforts in Iraq, for three reasons. First, the conflict there will probably be too short for true cynicism to set in. Second, the U.S. propaganda machine has had years to perfect its skills in communicating with its soldiers. Third, the all-volunteer army is now made up of proportionately more soldiers who think going to war is a good idea--not that all, or even most, think that way, but certainly a higher percentage that in the draft era. Despite these reasons, though, I believe that some American and British military personnel will realize that we continue to side primarily with the wealthy (e.g., multinational oil conglomerates) while creating a hell for the poor.

This Madness Must Cease

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.

For almost a hundred years after the conversion of Constantine, gladiatorial contests continued in Rome. One day a monk named Telemachus wandered into the Coliseum to see what the crowd was going to see. When he saw the murderous spectacle begin to unfold, he leaped to the floor of the amphitheater and tried to stop the combatants. "In the name of Christ, stop!" "In the name of Christ, stop!" According to one version of the story, one of the gladiators ran him through with a sword. In another version, the crowd stoned him to death. In either case, the report of his death made an impact on the emperor Honorius, who ended gladiatorial combat forever. Edward Gibbon describes him as "the only monk who died a martyr in the cause of humanity." How many Christians today are willing to say with Telemachus, "In the name of Christ, stop!"? How many will tell our government with Martin Luther King, "Somehow this madness must cease! We must stop now!"? Will we speak for the poor of their land and ours who are paying the greatest price of this war? Will we speak as citizens of the world, despite the cacophony of citizens of America--70%, according to a recent poll--who support the war? King's words concerning Vietnam continue to be true of Iraq. "The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours."

This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words:

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

Has anything changed?

If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. It will become clear that our minimal expectation is to occupy it as an American colony, and men will not refrain from thinking that our maximum hope is to goad China into a war so that we may bomb her nuclear installations. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horribly clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play.

What the world believes, along with many Americans, is that the U.S. has no honorable intentions in Iraq. They believe that the war is about oil, revenge, anti-Muslim sentiment, or some combination of the three. They believe that Iraq is designed to be a springboard into Iran or Syria or even North Korea. The only way we can prove them wrong is by pulling out of Iraq immediately.

The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.

The U.S. has rarely had either the maturity or the courage to admit its faults. The current administration, with its strident rhetoric of good vs. evil and its hard-right ideological bent is not likely to be the group to lead America to see its faults, because it doesn't believe we have any. Although King didn't use the word, he was clearly alluding to the biblical concept of repentance that was so often on the lips of the prophets. As a nation, we need to repent of our arrogance, our greed, and our violence, and we need to repent now.

In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war. I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:

  1. End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.
  2. Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
  3. Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.
  4. Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and in any future Vietnam government.
  5. Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva agreement.

There are several steps that the U.S. government can and should take to end the unjust war in Iraq, including an immediate end to all bombing in Iraq and the declaration of an immediate ceasefire. The U.S. should then invite the U.N. to open discussions with the Iraqi government, and the U.N. should determine whether weapons inspections are still worthwhile, especially in light of the fact that none have been found or used so far in the war by Iraq. There is absolutely no chance that the U.S. will do these things, but it is important nevertheless to set out a more moral course of action.

Part of our ongoing commitment might well express itself in an offer to grant asylum to any Vietnamese who fears for his life under a new regime which included the Liberation Front. Then we must make what reparations we can for the damage we have done. We must provide the medical aid that is badly needed, making it available in this country if necessary.

One of the tenets of international law is that the aggressor in a war is responsible for reparations of the country that is invaded, and the U.S. should live up to its responsibilities. Since this is a war waged exclusively by the U.S., Britain, and Australia, these three countries alone should pay to rebuild the country. If the U.N., the European Union, and other countries that are asked to contribute funds will stand their ground, perhaps future elective wars will be avoided.

Protesting The War

Meanwhile we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must continue to raise our voices if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative means of protest possible.

As was the case during the Vietnam era, while many churches have been outspoken in their opposition to the war, others have voiced support for hostile action in Iraq. Regardless of critics on the right who value commitment to nation over commitment to Christ, or rather who equate the two, Christians who stand in the prophetic tradition must continue to speak out against the war on Iraq.

As we counsel young men concerning military service we must clarify for them our nation's role in Vietnam and challenge them with the alternative of conscientious objection. I am pleased to say that this is the path now being chosen by more than seventy students at my own alma mater, Morehouse College, and I recommend it to all who find the American course in Vietnam a dishonorable and unjust one. Moreover I would encourage all ministers of draft age to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as conscientious objectors. These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.

Americans are told that they should "support the troops," but what does that mean for those who view the war in which our troops are fighting as unjust? Certainly we want to honor the commitment of those willing to put their lives at risk, even if we disagree with the reasons they are fighting. Respecting their commitment, however, does not mean supporting their cause. How, then, can we support the troops? First, we can pray for the safety of all those on the field of battle, both American/British/Australian and Iraqi, soldier and civilian alike. Second, we can urge our government, as well as other governments, to bring a quick end to the war so that no more will be killed or injured. Third, we can counsel those soldiers who have reservations about the morality of the war concerning conscientious objection. Fourth, we can urge chaplains to preach the gospel of peace. Fifth, we can encourage soldiers opposed to the war, but who feel called to continue their commitment--including medics, doctors, and those in support roles--to speak openly, honestly, and respectfully about their feelings with fellow soldiers. The best thing we can do to support our soldiers is to bring them home safely, and the best way to do that is to end the war quickly.

There is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter the struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing. The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.

In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which now has justified the presence of U.S. military "advisors" in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Colombia and why American napalm and green beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru. It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken--the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

Over the past thirty-six years since King made his speech, the U.S. has continued to involve itself on the side of investors or ideological rightists (the two are really synonymous) and against the desires of the poor of many countries. The few exceptions over the years--such as the ouster of right-wing coup leaders in Haiti, who had overthrown the elected left-leaning president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide; we sided with the oppressed majority of South Africans only after years of supporting the right-wing apartheid regime--serve only to prove the more general rule. Although the U.S. regularly couches its foreign policy initiatives in terms of human rights and democracy, the fact that we intervened in Kuwait (an oil-rich country) and did not intervene in Rwanda (a country with no oil) says it all: America's foreign policy is designed to benefit Americans, not citizens of other countries.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

Although America continues to be on the wrong side of many global struggles for justice, those of us who view ourselves as progressives, or who walk in the traditions of the Hebrew prophets, can change America. King offers several concrete examples of what changes in attitude we will have to engender in our fellow Americans, and even in ourselves, to accomplish this goal.

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 is not haphazard and superficial. 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 Latin 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 hands 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 veins of people 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.

Martin Luther King was perhaps the greatest prophet that America has produced. One of the problems he was able to discern in the life of our nation was structural injustice, or structural sin. Religious people often think of sin in terms of individual acts, but King saw that sin could be embedded in an unjust social structure, and that individuals who benefited from that social structure were guilty of sinning against those who suffered because of it. He also saw that valuing material objects (especially wealth) over people was a profound social ill (this observation parallels Martin Buber's in I and Thou). Finally, he saw war and militarism for what it truly is, not a benign form of self-protection but a malignant evil that must be destroyed if the world is ever to attain true peace and justice.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

What was true in 1967 is even more true now. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States is now without question the world's most powerful nation, and we have an unprecedented opportunity to do good for all people of the planet. We can lead the way in fighting disease, feeding the hungry, educating the illiterate, and promoting justice. Perhaps most importantly, we can teach other nations what it means to wage peace, not war. Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich has called for the establishment of a Department of Peace alongside our Department of Defense (formerly the War Department, now with a newspeak name). If Americans would embrace the potential that is ours right now in history, what a difference we could make in the world! For this opportunity will not last forever. As much as some in our country would like to see American worldwide hegemony last forever, it will not. Like other empires of the past--Persia, Rome, Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, Hitler's Third Reich, and the Soviet Union--America will one day take its place on the list of former empires. Will it be China, with four times our population and growing economic strength, that takes our place? Or will it be India, soon to be the most populous nation on earth? Or maybe it will be a united Europe, or Africa, or Latin America. Hopefully a truly just international organization will replace all regional empires once and for all at some point. One thing is for sure, and that is that we must act to make the world a better place while we can. Two years ago economists were forecasting U.S. budget surpluses as far as the eye could see--just imagine what good could be done with all that extra money! When Bush took office, practically his first act was to enact a huge tax cut. Then the economy went south, and suddenly the nation is faced with huge deficits again. The point is this: opportunities to do great things arise only rarely, and when they do, those who are discerning will act.

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and through their misguided passions urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not call everyone a Communist or an appeaser who advocates the seating of Red China in the United Nations and who recognizes that hate and hysteria are not the final answers to the problem of these turbulent days. We must not engage in a negative anti-communism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.

King was right about the way to defeat communism, and he was right to oppose those who called for the U.S. to pull out of the U.N. The comments he made about communism can equally well be applied to terrorism today. Terrorism will not be defeated with bombs and missiles, and it will not be defeated unilaterally. The U.S. needs the other nations of the world to sign on to oppose terrorism. More important than getting nations to agree to fight terrorism, however, is the necessity of changing the social and political conditions in which terrorism spawns. Islam is not responsible for the growth of Muslim terrorists like Osama bin Laden any more than Christianity is responsible for Christian terrorists like Timothy McVeigh. Socioeconomic injustice, prejudice, and hopelessness all produce conditions in which terrorism can thrive, and only foolish leaders would think that killing, mayhem, and paternalism are likely to decrease the incidence of terrorist activities.

The People Are Important

These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light." We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated. 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. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when "every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain."

Has the revolutionary spirit waned since the 1960s? Certainly after the revolutionary gains of the 60s and 70s, the pendulum has swung the other way, and more conservative forces are at work today. However, most of the gains of the past are still intact, particularly in Latin America and Africa, as well as in the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. Justice has advanced since the 1950s, but injustice has begun to make inroads again. International structures designed to help struggling nations frequently cripple them with overwhelming debt. Multinational corporations exploit workers on a worldwide scale in order to provide inexpensive goods to Western consumers. Great swaths of Africa suffer under the AIDS pandemic while treatment is withheld because of lack of funds. Even in America itself, tens of millions go hungry--mostly children--and tens of millions have inadequate health care. Rich corporate executives run their companies into the ground and cash in lucrative stock options, while those who did the real work for the corporations lose both their jobs and their pensions. Those who suffer from injustice will not do so indefinitely. As John Steinbeck wrote, "In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage." A new revolution is coming. Will America side with the oppressed against injustice, or will it try in vain to suppress the growing indignation of those who suffer? The answer to that question will be closely tied to the issue of how long the American Empire will last.

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept--so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force--has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:

Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Nationalism is one of the greatest diseases afflicting the world today. Often given a positive spin and called "patriotism," nationalism pits nation against nation and justifies selfish behavior on an international scale. World leaders build their country's foreign policy objectives around the notion of "what's best for the nation." Nothing could be further from the concept of ultimate concern for the world that is rooted in the idea of monotheism: if there is truly one God, then God is concerned about all the world, not one particular nation. To invoke God's help against one's enemies is the height of audacity, and it betrays a deep misunderstanding of the idea of a God who is creator, redeemer, and sustainer of the universe. These are concepts common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, yet followers of all three religions all too often seem to forget them. Jesus challenged his followers to love their enemies. When nations get to the point where they seek to understand, reason with, and work with their enemies rather than plot ways of undermining or destroying them, then the world will be closer to realizing the universal love of God, and the gospel will truly have become "good news" for everyone. Ironically, patriotism in a benign sense--love of country--is inextricably bound up with internationalism and opposed to nationalism, because internationalism offers hope to nations that nationalism can never fulfill.

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says:

Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.

Already in the second century, a Christian leader named Marcion realized that a God who chooses one people over another and encourages them to hate and kill their enemies is incompatible with the God revealed by Jesus Christ, so he taught his followers to reject the god that he believed was represented in the Old Testament. Modern readers of the Hebrew Bible who stand in the prophetic tradition recognize the ethical problems that Marcion identified, but we see in the prophets Hosea and Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah a more accurate portrayal of God than in some of the historical narratives that indeed picture a god of war. Unfortunately, too many readers of the Hebrew Bible today, Jew and Christian alike (as well as some readers of the Quran), have adopted the god of war, a god who chooses one group and rejects another, as their role model and object of worship. As long as people continue to worship this false god, hatred will oppose love. Those of us who reject this caricature of God must show by word and deed what worshiping a God of love means. Then we can lead the world forward toward a spirit of unity and peace.

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on..." We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

Shelly wrote of an inscription found in the desert:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Time passes by for both individuals and nations.

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world--a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter--but beautiful--struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

We strive not for a "new world order," but for a new world. We side with the poor, the oppressed, and the hopeless. We say to the needy, "Let us meet your need," and to the struggling, "We will stand with you in your struggle." We stand with our God for love, peace, and justice.

As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:

Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah,
Off'ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
Twixt that darkness and that light.

Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet 'tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong:
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.


© Copyright 2003, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology