Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

40 Years After

On Friday, April 4, many in the USA remembered the tragic murder of one of the most important prophetic leaders of the 20th century. I don’t need to tell you that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great leader, prophet, and pastor. But if all you knew about him came from the dominant media, you’d never know he ever did anything but give a great speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. Whenever Dr. King is remembered by the media, they bring out brief clips of his “I Have a Dream” speech. They may also, as they did on Friday, show a clip from his final speech in which he told his audience he was not afraid of any man, he was not afraid of dying because God had taken him to the mountaintop.

The media reduce Dr. King to these two speeches. We never hear of his pastoral ministry or hear his sermons. We certainly do not see or hear any of the speeches he gave in the last year of his life when he was speaking out against the war in Viet Nam and working to organize poor people of all races. In fact, I believe it is no accident that one of Dr. King’s most controversial and important speeches was delivered on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was murdered in Memphis.

Martin Luther King was not murdered for his dream of racial reconciliation and equality. He was assassinated because he had become a vocal opponent of the Viet Nam war and of its connection to poverty in the USA. He had the audacity to take his “I Have a Dream” speech to its logical, prophetic conclusion of justice for the poor and oppressed peoples of the world. He makes this very clear in his April 4, 1967 speech from the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City, “Beyond Vietnam.” King tells the audience that people of faith have a responsibility to speak up for the poor of the world. He said that people of faith must share God’s concern for the poor and oppressed peoples of the world. They must not limit their concerns and loyalty to the nation’s concerns or interests:

“Finally, 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. 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, for those it calls "enemy," for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”

King understood that as long as the US government was engaged in war in Vietnam, it would not commit the resources and energies needed to address the problems of poverty and injustice at home, or anywhere else in the world. He also knew that the vast majority of the young men where fighting and dying in the jungles of Vietnam were the sons of the poor.

Dr. King was murdered because he had added his voice to the growing chorus of opposition to the Vietnam War; and because he was working to organize poor people for economic justice in the United States. But the media and politicians who invoke his name never cite this period of Dr. King’s ministry.

All this is to say that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a much more complicated and compelling character than the one portrayed in the media and the politicians that try to exploit his name. Dr. King was a prophet in the lineage of Hosea, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jesus. We need to remember and honor the man for who he really was.

Listen to Dr. King explain his opposition to the Vietnam War here:


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