On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Monday, hundreds of people will gather, greet friends, hear inspiring words, walk Spokane streets together and promote racial and community harmony. It's a genuine community event, but some of us experience it more personally because our lives, faith perspectives and worldviews were transformed by the life and death of Dr. King.
Last year seemed particularly significant because of the convergence of MLK Day with the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, a refreshing bit of history that will be forever linked to some of King's contributions to our culture.
Unfortunately, President Obama has cast a cloud over Martin Luther King Jr. Day, regarding the most vital gifts from our 20th-century hero.
Sadly paraphrased: Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Barack could run. Barack backpedaled to have his war and a Nobel, too.
In an Oslo auditorium, graced 45 years earlier by Martin Luther King Jr., President Obama last month trivialized King's choice to follow Jesus and Gandhi, suffer instead of inflict suffering, convert instead of crush. King was presented the Nobel Prize for Peace for steadfastly practicing nonviolence as he led the civil rights movement through violent threats and actual violence against African Americans, liberal activists, his family and his life. Obama was selected for the same distinction for talking the talk and igniting hope that the U.S. could lead the way to peace and reconciliation.
Obama gave an eloquent speech in Oslo, but he appeased our corporate masters, who crave distant wars, never risking their own lives and fortunes as the poor are routinely sacrificed for power and energy supremacy.
Obama undermined the honor, justifying his own quagmire, the vacuous war in Afghanistan, inherited from President George W. Bush. Avoiding the truth that we have much to lose and nothing to gain circulating war-weary troops from bleak objective to senseless atrocity, Obama smeared the success of King's victory, which proved nonviolent action is the moral, rational and pragmatic answer to oppression and conflict. Obama dismissed the proposition that war is evil, futile and disastrous, denying that nonviolence, as taught and waged by King and Gandhi, has not failed when relentlessly and patiently practiced.
Saying Hitler could not have been stopped by nonviolent resistance, Obama slighted Norway, whose people did exactly that, sparing their country Nazi domination and the devastation suffered by countries with powerful armies.
Jimmy Carter, a former commander-in-chief, said, when he received the Peace Prize in 2002, "War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other's children."
Of course, Dr. King's Nobel lecture is filled with memorable lines. It's incomprehensible to me that Obama could ignore or contradict so many great quotes in his own speech, although we're accustomed to lip service to King's memory from apologists for war.
A few lines from King's 1964 Nobel lecture, almost three years before he powerfully and specifically condemned the Vietnam War:
"This problem of spiritual and moral lag ... expresses itself in three larger problems which grow out of man's ethical infantilism. Each of these problems, while appearing to be separate and isolated, is inextricably bound to the other. I refer to racial injustice, poverty, and war.
"... (W)ar is obsolete. 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 destructive power of modern weapons eliminated even the possibility that war may serve as a negative good. If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war."
It's easy to name a piece of street for Dr. King. It's difficult to see his war criticism as anything less than prophetic.
The challenge on MLK Day 2010 is to accept the fact that we have dodged the part of his example intended for us, comfortable Americans who made war and violence our default choices. To honor Dr. King, we have to change, and we have to take President Obama with us.