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Another MLK Holiday Is Safely Past

By Gary Kohls
January 21, 2011

Editor’s Note: A bitter irony from the American Right is that it calls the United States a “Christian nation” without recognizing that the government’s lavish spending on wars contradicts the pacifistic teachings of Jesus, known as the Prince of Peace.

Similarly, the United States has adapted to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. with an annual holiday that accepts his commitment to racial equality but not his aversion to war, as Gary Kohls notes in this guest essay:

Now that he is safely dead let us praise him,
build monuments to his glory,
sing hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient heroes.
They cannot rise to challenge the images
we would fashion from their lives.

And besides,
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.,” -- Carl Wendell Hines

“Now That He Is Safely Dead” is the poignant poem that was written by black poet/musician Carl Wendell Hines soon after Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965.

The poem also has been appropriately associated with the death of Martin Luther King and his legacy of nonviolent struggle for black liberation, freedom, equality, economic justice and the pursuit of happiness for all.

Ignoring Dr. King’s first principle of confronting injustice with nonviolent struggle, America has posthumously awarded him the monument of a national holiday with frequent references to the moving “I Have A Dream” speech.

Officialdom tolerates the retelling of the Dream, hoping that the yearly event honoring this more “benign” and less militant King suffices to quell the real demands for real freedom and equality.

And so another MLK Day has safely passed into memory. …

Jesus, of course, was another one of those whistle-blowing tellers of the truth who advocated and/or practiced active resistance to evil in the nonviolent struggle for the relief of human suffering.

His radical teachings of unconditional love thrived for only two or three centuries after his death, and today, barely survives in a few remnants of the original form of Christianity.

Dr. King was one of those remnants that recognized the original voice of Jesus and had the courage to preach those radical and dangerous truths. Dr. King knew all about the power and practicality of the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule and the love of enemies. And he knew about the rapid reversal of those highly ethical teachings and the takeover of the church by the state starting about 300 CE.

Purging the Prophets

But the voices of the prophets always get silenced in violent societies and it isn’t by accident.

Both ancient and modern powers-that-be recognize dangerous whistle-blowers when they see them, and they usually don’t waste much time planning the “silencing.”

Usually the prophets are initially ignored, then, if that doesn’t succeed, they are violently opposed, and then, (rarely, it seems to me), the truth may be ultimately accepted as self-evident (idea stolen from German philosopher Schopenhaurer).

In our more complicated era Schopenhauer’s dictum still holds, but now there are more sophisticated ways to discredit (by rumors, infiltration of the prophet’s movement by agents provocateur, death threats to the victim or family, right-wing think tanks to spread disinformation to the media, harassment and even arranging murders that look like accidents or suicides or by some “deranged” or planted patsy).

And so it goes. Being a prophet is hazardous duty (“a vocation of agony” as King described it).

Whistle-blowers such as Dr. King know very well that they are going to pay a heavy price for their refusal to bow down to authority. They know that they will have to endure character or physical assassinations if they don’t shut up.

Dr. King is mostly known for his “I Have a Dream” speech and his courageous civil rights activism on behalf of poor and oppressed African-Americans.

The powers-that-be seem to be OK with the sentiments in that speech, as long as the granting of full freedom and opportunity for blacks and minorities continues to be slow AND the truth about King’s commitment to Christian nonviolence remains unacknowledged and unheard.

It is important to realize that Dr. King’s commitment to his struggle for human rights for all came out of his understanding of the life, mission and gospel ethics of his mentor, Jesus of Nazareth.

Dr. King’s belief in nonviolent societal transformation mirrored the politics and theology of Jesus (as well as Gandhi, who was inspired by the Sermon on the Mount), and it was because of the teachings of those two heroes of his that the civil rights movement – and his antiwar activism - was shaped.

Killing King

The success of King’s nonviolent tactics is proven by the fact that his enemies had to resort to killing him in order to stop the movement.

It was Dr. King’s willingness to come out against the dirty war in Vietnam in his powerful “Beyond Vietnam” speech that set the stage for the final assassination plot that permanently silenced him (or so the plotters thought) with a single bullet to the head exactly one year later, April 4, 1968.

Dr. King had struggled for months with what he felt was his calling to speak out against the war, and eventually he realized that he had no choice but to do so. 

He said: “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, 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.”

King saw the connections between the financial, spiritual and psychological costs of participation in the human slaughter of the innocents in Vietnam and the racial and economic violence that was preventing poor blacks from attaining justice in America.

King knew a nation couldn’t simultaneously fund both “guns and butter” (the notion that a nation can pay for war and simultaneously provide for its people’s basic human needs).

American politicians had already made the choice. The funding was going to go to the guns and not the butter. Pouring scarce resources into war-making automatically sabotages social programs that benefit the poor.

America lost President Johnson’s “war on poverty” because it fought Johnson’s and Nixon’s wars in Vietnam. Understanding the connections between those realities is important and Dr. King understood them.

He knew that the war in Vietnam meant that freedom for the oppressed at home was going to be delayed - perhaps forever, if the proponents of white racism had anything to say about it. And, as Dr. King often said: “justice delayed is justice denied.”

Many historians believe that Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech was equivalent to the signing of his own death warrant. The war profiteers, pro-war politicians and assorted militarists in positions of power at the time absolutely could not tolerate his antiwar activism.

King was working for justice for all, which necessarily meant the defenseless Vietnamese women and children who were being indiscriminately targeted, starved, maimed, murdered, bombed and napalmed; and the soil, water and unborn children of Vietnam were being poisoned, for generations to come, by Agent Orange and other military toxins.

King had no choice but to object on the basis of his conscience.

Death Threats

King received, on a daily basis, during the years leading up to that fateful day in Memphis, dozens of cowardly death threats from the racist right-wing reactionaries that were afraid of black equality.

Oppressors naturally fear whatever long-overdue reprisals (or indictments and prison terms) will occur when their oppressed victims gain their freedom, but they don’t seem to fear for their souls or the souls of the nation they were trying to dominate. In this regard, Dr. King had a warning for them.

In the Riverside Church speech he said: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

King not only pointed out the “guns and butter” fallacy, but, in addition, he is accusing those who waste precious resources on state-sponsored crimes against humanity with risking their moral collapse.

Even Harry Truman understood that reality, when he said, "All through history it has been the nations that have given the most to generals and the least to the people that have been the first to fall."

The elephant in the room that the power elite hopes we don’t see (just like their emperor’s clothes) is the state-sponsored violence that Dr. King spoke out against continuously. It is the military spending that keeps justice from being delivered.

Reversing poverty and racism will be impossible as long as America continues to spend an unaffordable $2 billion every day on militarism. Every program of social uplift is made unaffordable when military spending is the nation’s top priority.

The spirits of Martin Luther King and Jesus are not dead, if only we will listen and take them seriously. Each one has been futilely trying to tell us: “Put away the sword, for those who live by the sword will perish by the sword.”

America is doomed if it doesn’t stop wasting so much money on guns. Without serious attention to the willingness to kill there will be no hope of achieving the economic relief, sustainable jobs and an end to racism.

We can’t afford to put King’s message on hold for yet another year.

Dr. Kohls is a founding member of Every Church A Peace Church.

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