On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King delivered his first public antiwar speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” at New York’s Riverside Church. As I read the speech this morning, it was painfully obvious that Dr. King’s words are appropriate to the world situation in 2015. What follows is his assessment of the world’s condition (in 1967 and 2015), followed by a stunning statement about the Christian’s responsibility to influence this condition.
First a portion of Dr. King’s speech:
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. . . .
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 worldwide 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 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’m 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 reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another for love is God. (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.
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.”
Is there any Hope?
Later in the speech, King gives us a beacon of hope, a plan of action, a way to make love have “the last word. ”
“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 than an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
How do I speak hope to a world that is churning in hate? First, I offer assistance to others as God puts them on my path. Second, I try to transform the road they are traveling so that they will not need assistance in the first place. As King says, a structure that produces beggars needs restructuring.
How do we go about that restructuring? Become a strong pilgrim in God’s Kingdom ourselves. Understand Jesus’ position on poverty and our role in helping those who suffer from poverty. Become knowledgeable about the systems in 2015 that guarantee poverty and inequity. (Did you know that 300 million people in rural India still have no electricity?) Look deeply at the traditions and politics that keep some people on top and others mired in poverty. Be willing to speak up! When a good friend said to me recently, “We need to send all the immigrants back home; we don’t have to support them. We have to take care of ourselves, don’t we?” I had a choice: find something to agree with in her statement, remain silent, or tell the truth as I see it. I did the latter, but not as strongly as I could have. Simplify our lives so our extra resources can be used to assist individuals in need as well as groups that are trying to change systems large or small.
As Toynbee said, “the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.” Love produces action. Action produces change. Every little change brings more hope. Love and hope will have the last word. Just look at the life of Jesus.