If he had lived, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr would have been 77 years old on Sunday. From what we know of his life and
thought -- from his twelve short years of ministry and public action -- we can be sure that were he still alive today King would be
an active and leading critic of the Bush administration. Not only would he unequivocally oppose pre-emptive war, the killing of
civilians, and torture, he would remind us of the connection between the resources wasted on war and the unfulfilled needs of
working people and the poor at home. And he would do so in the streets as well as from the pulpit.
After the Montgomery bus boycott that made him famous, King was constantly in demand as a public speaker. His hectic travel
schedule and the time he spent organizing and leading campaigns for civil rights and social justice did not allow him much time in
his study to write sermons. He often repeated the same ones, revising them to address the needs and circumstances of the moment. I
imagine if he were preaching today, he would be using an updated version of his historic address: A Time to Break Silence.
Delivered at Riverside Church in New York City in April of 1967, "A Time to Break Silence" was the first sermon in which
King linked his opposition to the Vietnam War with the aims of the civil rights movement. Explaining what was sure to be a
controversial stand even among his allies, he said, "I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in
rehabilitation of the poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic
destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."
Today I imagine King would challenge us to explain how our nation "a nation with more than 45 million people without health
insurance and 17 percent of its children living in poverty" can justify military spending that amounts to half a trillion dollars.
Half a trillion dollars is almost an unfathomable amount. Imagine if you were a college student paying half a trillion dollars in
tuition. You would have to pay your fees at a rate of $16,000 a second for one year. If you started paying last night at midnight,
by noon you would already be out $691,000,000. With the money that we have spent in Iraq alone, we could have hired more than
2,000,000 public school teachers. We could have awarded nearly 3,000,000 students with four-year scholarships at public
universities. We could have provided health insurance to 45,000,000 children.
King warned us that "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of
social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
"I am convinced," he said, that "we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin to shift from a
"thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are
considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
If King were to continue that sermon and to re-contextualize it by substituting the word "terrorism" for "Communism" he
would tell us,
"America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. 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. This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against [terrorism]. War is not
the answer. [Terrorism] will never be defeated by the use of [cluster bombs] or [torture]. Let us not join those who shout war and
through their misguided passions urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which
demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not call everyone an appeaser who recognizes that hate and hysteria are not
the final answers to the problem of these turbulent days. We must not engage in a negative [anti-terrorism], but rather in a
positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against [terrorism] is to take offensive action in behalf of
justice. We must -- with positive action -- seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the
fertile soil in which the seed of [terrorism] grows and develops."
At the age of 35, Martin Luther King received the Nobel Peace Prize. In his sermon at Riverside three years later he
mentioned that the Prize was a commission to work harder than he had ever worked before to promote peace. It was a commission, he
said, "to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human
hands can make these humans any less our brothers." Today King would remind us again that our enemies are human. That would be
hard to square with the fear or anger we may feel in our hearts, but King said, "Here is the true meaning and value of compassion
and nonviolence " when it helps us to see the enemy"s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.
For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and
profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition."
I have no illusions that King's sermon would be better received today than it was thirty-seven Aprils ago. After King
delivered his Riverside speech, the condemnation of the press was swift and nearly unanimous. The Washington Post declared, "Many
who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his
cause, to his country and to his people." Life magazine added that King's speech was "demagogic slander that sounded like a script
for Radio Hanoi" and that he had gone "beyond his personal right to dissent." Given the general compliance of the press with the
Bush administration today, I expect the reaction to King would be similar if not worse.
King was not deterred, however, from pursuing an ever-expanding vision of peace and justice. In a book written that same
year, The Trumpet of Conscience, King asked rhetorically, "Can a nonviolent, direct-action movement find application on the
international level, to confront economic and political problems"" He answered himself in the affirmative and continued, "There may
have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force, but the very destructive
power of modern weapons of warfare eliminates even the possibility that war may any longer serve as a negative good."
King was challenging us to disabuse ourselves of the idea that bombs could burst and buildings could crumble without
disrupting or extinguishing the lives of everyone -- women and men and children and the young and the aged and us all. There was no
moral schema for King in which he could tabulate "collateral damage" under the heading "negative good."
I think the essential kernel of truth in King's quest for social justice and the realization of a beloved community was that
we must never forget anyone"s humanness. He grounded his opposition to racism, materialism, and militarism in the radical assertion
that other people are not objects to be treated as means to our ends. He centered his early campaigns against racism on the premise
that Americans of African-descent were human just like anyone else and so they deserved the same rights as anyone else. They would
no longer settle for being treated like objects. The freedom movement was a struggle to assert themselves as active and equal
subjects in history " coauthoring the story of our collective humanity.
And they knew so surely that their ends were just and true that they refused to treat their oppressors as objects, as means
toward their ends. King warned them not to see their opponents as the embodiment of evil but as other human beings caught up in the
structure of an unjust system. That was the challenge of nonviolence as an organizing principle for peace and reconciliation " to
transform one"s own consciousness first, to see oneself in the other and the other in oneself. King preached, "I can never be what I
ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be."
"It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a
single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the
interrelated structure of reality . . . One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is
a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means . . . In the final analysis, means and
ends must cohere because the end is pre-existent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends
. . . And when we truly believe in the sacredness of human personality, we won"t exploit people, we won"t trample over people with
the iron feet of oppression, we won"t kill anybody."
Thirty-eight years after King's death we still need to overcome racism, materialism, and militarism. We need to learn the
essential lessons of King's life and heed his prophetic voice if we are to break off the chains of perpetual war and begin to build
the beloved community. The challenge of mutual understanding and goodwill begins inside each of us. It begins, as King said, with
recognition of our shared humanity. When we arrest our illusory need for control and domination and begin to see even our enemies
as ends-in-themselves, then we can confront our fears and make space for the work of peace.
Benjamin Peters (email@example.com) is a Doctoral Fellow in Political Science at Rutgers University and former Research Fellow
at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University.