Seasonal Reflection: Being True to King’s Legacy

Stephen DeWitt, OFM Features

As people around the country commemorated the life and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. this week, Stephen DeWitt, OFM, of Holy Name College, Silver Spring, Md., describes why it is important to remember Dr. King’s opposition to militarism and poverty in the United States. Stephen recently completed a course on the theology of Martin Luther King.

The next issue of HNP Today will include news of how ministries around the Province marked the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Jan. 17.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most important, influential, and well-known figures of the 20th century United States. King is rightly famous and celebrated for his contributions to the cvil rights movement in the U.S. and his commitment to nonviolent social protest and activism.

This week, as we do each year, we, as a nation, pause to honor his memory and the ideals to which he dedicated his life. During this time most remembrances focus on his contributions to ending segregation and other manifestations of legalized racism in the United States. Many will read or play his famous “I Have a Dream” speech given during the 1963 Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C. All of this was an important part of King’s life and well worth remembering. Equally important, however, and less well remembered, is King’s opposition to militarism and poverty in the U.S. It was to this struggle that King dedicated the latter years of his life. It  is this aspect of his life, often forgotten in public remembrances of his life, that has the most to teach us in this moment of U.S. history.

King’s opposition to war was rooted in two important principles: his belief in the sacredness of all human life and his belief in an objective moral order. Both of these principles were grounded in his Christian faith and guided his entire life. For King, the sacredness of human life was a consequence of humankind’s creation in the image and likeness of God. Speaking on Christmas Eve, 1967, King said:

“Now, let me say that the next thing we must be concerned about if we are to have peace on earth and good will toward men [sic] is the nonviolent affirmation of the sacredness of all human life. Every man is somebody because he is a child of God. And so when we say ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ we’re really saying that human life is too sacred to be taken on the battlefields of the world.” (A Christmas Sermon on Peace)

This identity as children of God means that all people are related and interdependent in a way that knows no boundaries or divisions. We are all brothers and sisters and when we truly acknowledge this oppression, then exploitation and killing will be impossible.

Harmony with Universal Moral Order
King also believed that the universe was under the spiritual control of God and that God had written certain moral laws into the very fabric of the universe. This meant that moral decision-making was not about what was popular or even pragmatic, but what was most in line with the grain of the universe as God had created it. We live our lives best when we do so in harmony with this universal moral order; when we fail to do so, the results are violence, inequality, and injustice. This danger was particularly acute when one substituted a lesser value, such as materialism and consumerism, for love and devotion to God.

King believed that the existence of violence between human beings and of massive inequality between rich and poor was a sign that the people of the world had forgotten the inherent dignity of all people and had turned against the grain of the universe. This sense of violation was particularly evident in the relationship King saw between poverty and war in the policies of the United States during his lifetime, especially the War in Vietnam, which he publicly opposed during the final years of his life.

Speaking about the War in Vietnam in February of 1967, King called Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program the third casualty of the War in Vietnam, because the war was taking money that could be spent on the poor and using it for unjust killing and war. King goes on to lament a society that could rigorously evaluate every dollar spent on social welfare, while carelessly throwing billions of dollars at the slaughter of other human beings. For him, this indicated a massive distortion of values and priorities.

In April 1967, King called the War in Vietnam, “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit…” and called for a radical revolution of values so that the U.S. would “get on the right side of the world revolution” (Beyond Vietnam). As King saw it, the world was in the midst of worldwide revolution of freedom in which the oppressed peoples of the world were rising up to demand their rights as free people. Through its ongoing actions in Vietnam, the U.S. had placed itself on the wrong side of this revolution and was in need of great moral and spiritual revolution to bring itself back in line with the movement of the world.

Dewitt_SParallels Decades Later
Tragically, the radical revolution of values that King called for has not come to pass and his criticisms of war and violence retain their relevance. Even a superficial analysis of the recent misadventures of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan indicates the truth of this statement. According to some estimates, U.S. actions in these countries have cost more than $1 trillion (National Priorities Project), money that could be used here in the U.S. to alleviate the effects of the ongoing economic recession. As in King’s time, when budgets become tight, it is always social welfare programs that are forced to make sacrifices and not military and defense programs.

Nor would King be content with the massive inequality between rich and poor that continues to exist in the U.S. Speaking in 1956, King lamented the fact that one tenth of one percent of the population controlled nearly 40 percent of the wealth (Paul’s Letter to American Christians). Today, the wealthiest one percent control fully 40 percent of the wealth and earn 25 percent of all income annually (Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%). King condemned this situation, saying,

“God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe “enough and to spare” for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth. (Paul’s Letter to American Christians)

As long as the rich continue to dominate the poor, King’s critique retains its relevance and serves as a reminder that the U.S. is still in need of a radical reorientation of priorities.

Today, U.S. society remains troubled by the same issues that King spoke out against so eloquently during the final years of his life. Our tragic addiction to violence and war remains as the U.S. continues to spend obscene amounts of money on the military while people struggle to pay their bills. We continue to prioritize the rich and powerful, while leaving the poor and middle class to fend for themselves, despite all rhetoric to the contrary. The bankers and financiers who brought the U.S. and world economy to the brink of collapse are bailed out, while ordinary people are thrown out of their homes, often through dishonest and fraudulent means.

If King were alive today, he would be speaking out against the tragic state of U.S. society and culture. He would be marching with the various Occupy movements calling for accountability and for government programs to help people remain in their homes.

This week, many speak eloquently about the need to honor King’s memory and remember the great things he did for civil rights in this country. If we truly want to honor the memory of this American hero, however, we will join in the struggle to transform U.S. society and bring about the radical revolution of values that he called for. To do anything less makes a mockery of his life and everything for which he stood.

Br. Steve, a member of the Province’s Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Directorate, professed his final vows as a Franciscan in August 2011.