The anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. falls just five days before the second inauguration of a president who has broken faith with most of the civil rights leader's legacy -- at home and abroad.
But, while today's leaders are out of touch with King's legacy, Americans who still hold out hope that their country might truly embrace a higher and better morality than that of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice must keep in touch.
Amid our celebrations of King's monumental contribution to the struggle for racial and economic justice in the United States, we must also celebrate his commitment to peace – and to the humane foreign policies that ultimately provide the best defense against threats and violence.
Thus it will be appropriate over these next few days, as we honor King's memory, that we recall what the slain civil rights champion had to say about a subject that is much in the news these days: moral values.
"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. 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 is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: ‘This is not just.' It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: ‘This is not just.' The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just," King explained in his April 4, 1967, address at Manhattan's Riverside Church.
King explained that robbing the nation's treasury to fund military misadventures abroad did not fit into any definition he knew of "moral values." Indeed, he suggested, morality called Americans to oppose presidents who embarked upon careers of empire -- for the sake not just of victimized nations on the other side of the planet, but for the sake of America.
"A true revolution of values will lay hands 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 veins of people 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."
We honor King best by following his teachings. And, while he taught us much about how to live with one another, he taught us even more about how to live in peace with the rest of the world. It is that lesson that we must carry into what the Bush administration and the pliant press will portray as a festive week of celebration.
For those who are not celebrating with the Bushes and Cheneys, however, it is important to remember that King would not have settled for the excuse of "necessity" that the president will peddle. America, King told the crowd at Riverside Church on that April evening, could change.
"America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values," the Nobel Peace Prize winner explained. "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."
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