Dreaming for a King-Sized Faith: Ten Reflections from Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” Speech

Coming off of InterVarsity’s National Staff Conference (which I will be blogging about soon!), I was challenged with a vision that InterVarsity can not only see students’ lives transformed by the Gospel, but see the WHOLE UNIVERSITY transformed by the Gospel. I was inspired by the story of Scripture which says that God so loved the WORLD that He sent His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. My heart stirred at the thought of all creation groaning and crying out, waiting for release, waiting for redemption and for God to make all things new. I prayed with my 1,200 colleagues, “Let Your Kingdom come, let Your will be done, on earth as it is heaven…”

I left believing afresh that God was at work in my world moving actively and powerfully.

It was in this place that I encountered yet again the prophet, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I’m thankful as a nation we annually commemorate his life, because each year I am challenged anew at not just His life, but the God that he so faithfully served.

When I was a kid, I read a 60-page scholastic biography of Dr. King and read the book so often that the pages fell out. It was one of my favorite books, next to Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Boxcar Children. Yet I don’t remember much from the book apart from the fact that Dr. King’s friends and family called him “M.L.” and I wanted to call myself “A.S.” until I thought that would sound like I was calling myself “Ass.” But it captured the attention of an 8-year-old.

Now this 26-year-old is in awe of a man who boldly lived out His faith in profound and effective ways.

I spent a portion of this afternoon listening to Dr. King’s sermon, “Beyond Vietnam” at Riverside Church in New York City in April of 1967. I actually picked it at random. I wanted to listen to a Dr. King sermon for my quiet time. And while random, I genuinely believe that the Lord wanted to speak to me through Dr. King’s words. I sat in the Evanston coffee shop, headphones on, mesmerized by King’s words and how the transcendant truths of the Kingdom of God were incarnated into the tumultuous, complex issues of late 60s political arena.

Before I go further, I should point out the obvious and say that there are a lot more eloquent, learned and SUCCINCT reflections on Dr. King, and perhaps your time is better spent reading them instead of what may turn out to be a long-winded entry filled with giant quotes. I’m thinking specifically of Tim Wise’s editorial challenging of Michelle Obama and the prevalent temptation to depoliticize and sanitize Dr. King’s political legacy. Or a Troy Jackson’s reminder to not just reflect on Dr. King but take action and work for Biblical social change. Or finally Jerrod McKenna’s fascinating blog on how Dr. King’s legacy relates to the current fight against climate change.

But personally I just wanted to blog to process Dr. King’s Beyond Vietnam speech and put down on “paper” some of the ways I’m responding to Dr. King’s words from over four decades ago. His words came just about a year before his untimely death and was perhaps the first and strongest public repudiation of the Vietnam war. And this speech contains some really rich passages that give us clues to Dr. King’s deeper beliefs about God, society and the motivations for his ministry.

I’m including some of my favorite excerpts from the speech, but to be honest, I think the WHOLE speech is worth listening to. I’d highly recommend taking some time to listen to the entire speech. If you actually read this far into this entry, I implore you to listen to the speech. Because each of the excerpts I’m going to paste below really come out strongest in the context of the whole argument Dr. King makes. But here are some reflections, with excerpts from Dr. King’s speech in grey:

1. Dr. King saw a fundamental component of His role as a minister of Jesus Christ to make peace and work for the poor and oppressed around the world.

I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize 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’m speaking against the war.

2. Dr. King recognized that, though he loved his country, he had an identification beyond national, ethnic and cultural lines: that of universal sonship and brotherhood, as articulated in Scripture.

  • [Referring to the growing anti-war action by religious leader] 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.
  • As I try to explain 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 the victims of our nation and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
  • 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 of the — 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 one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.

3. Dr. King believed that his call to Christian social action was more than just individual acts of compassion but engaging with structures and powers and authorities, acting and speaking on behalf of the voiceless:

  • 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 the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
  • 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 and our lives if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative method of protest possible…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.
  • 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.

4. Motivated by the Gospel, Dr. King worked for the good of all people, despite the cost, even (perhaps especially) the supposed enemies of the state. He also had a humility in his opinions and was even willing to learn from His “enemies.”

  • 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?
  • 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.

5. Dr. King was serious about giving voice to the voiceless people of Vietnam and does so with brilliance.

The entire first half of his speech is his attempt to, what he says, “to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called ‘enemy.’ He actually walks the walk and gives an eloquent and brilliant defense to his anti-war position and why the US government is in the wrong. To be really honest, I was tempted to fast forward through this stuff because it was so dense and spoke so much about historical and political specifics. But that’s what I love about Dr. King, he not only has these transcendant ideas of the Kingdom of God, these pie-in-the-sky ideas of justice, universal brotherhood and world peace, but he also is rooted in reality, the messy, challenging political realities of his days. He is not only conversant on the issues, but its clear he’s mastered them. Would I be able to speak so eloquently and specifically about the issues of my day and how the Kingdom of God interacts with these realities?

6. Dr. King had an eternal or eschatological perspective. He believed that the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and all previous and subsequent movements were part of a grand movement of history, the redemption of the world and the entrance of the Kingdom of God, as the Bible foretold. And he believed that one major to see this come about is through a change in American policy.

  • The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation…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.
  • 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…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, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds 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.

7. Dr. King actually believed, without cynicism, that love could change the world.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing — embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft 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 not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. 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-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate — ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another, for love is God. And every one 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.” Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.

8. Dr. King’s strategy was one of wisdom and restraint, and positive action rather than negative stone-throwing.

These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative anticommunism, 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.

9. But at the same time, Dr. King’s view of the Kingdom of God compelled him to URGENT action.

  • We are now faced with the fact, my friends, 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 flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues 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.
  • 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.

10. Finally, Dr. King repeatedly used the phrase “speed up the day” — pointing to the belief that one day Jesus will return and make all things right but as Christians we are called to work for justice, peace and the common of all people.  But WE can speed that day. That’s an amazing image, right?

And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

**********

Perhaps I am guilty, like many are on this day, of lots of talk and reflection, but little action. Actually, not perhaps, I definitely am.

But isn’t that what today is for? To commemorate. To remember. To reflect. And to pray. To pray that God will grant us the strength, wisdom, hope, faith and love to continue on the long journey of fully living for Christ and His Kingdom. Just like He did for Dr. King. And to rejoice in the fact that God, in His infinite grace and mercy, will one day finish the work He began in us. Dr. King believed that, so should we!

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

– Prayer of St. Francis

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2 thoughts on “Dreaming for a King-Sized Faith: Ten Reflections from Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” Speech

  1. This is a terrific analysis of why we commerorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s holiday. Your article was a enlightenment and a reminder of God’s call to action for us as citizens of mankind.

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