King Jr., Martin Luther

Regaining a Moral Compass

From 1963 to 1966, while teaching art history at Marymount College in Tarrytown, N.Y., I was in a Catholic religious community blessed with questioning and concerned women. I was already convinced the Vietnam War was wrong—a conviction born of morality and scripture, but with little political analysis. Martin Luther King's words in spring 1967 expressed some of my consciousness: "I was a clergyman ... and ... I accepted as a commission to ... bring the ethical insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage to bear on the social evils of our day. War is one of the major evils facing humankind."

How profoundly our lives today are molded by the racism, materialism, and militarism about which Martin spoke so powerfully. How do we hold ourselves, each other, our communities, our churches, and our nation accountable? Perhaps it is the same way we carry forward King's idea that our national identity is secondary to our spiritual identity. How do we speak to an imperial nation that assumes it is entitled to dominate and control not only the earth and seas but all of outer space? We know that it has the intention and it has the means—nuclear stockpiles with world-destroying capacity.

King's insight has been realized in the United States. Our nation's "war on terror" is but the latest example: an epidemic of violence in the service of the rich and powerful. President Bush continues the war of the powerful against the powerless, with new excuses, new imperatives, new lies. The war has cost upwards of a trillion dollars. We have experienced the hostility of the Islamic world, the anger of our allies, the diminishment of our system of government, the complicity of the media, the silence of Congress, and the apathy of citizens. War has not made us more secure; it has made us less free.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2007
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Dreaming America

On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of the most important speeches in American history at Riverside Church in New York City. In it he decisively and prophetically extended his public ministry beyond narrowly defined civil rights by calling for an end to the U.S. war in Vietnam. "'A time comes when silence is betrayal,'" preached King. "That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam."

The Riverside speech (variously called "Beyond Vietnam" or "Breaking the Silence") named the sickness eating the American soul as "the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism." It was a watershed moment.

King's address was drafted for him by his friend, historian Vincent G. Harding. King made minor changes, but essentially delivered Harding's original text. "It's important to know that for about as long as the war was going on, Martin was raising questions about it," Harding, a retired professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, said in a recent interview. Harding and his wife, Rosemarie, often attended Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta when King was preaching. "It was clear that Martin was opposing the war," Harding explained, "and that he was opposing it from a deeply Christian perspective."

In smaller venues King had linked the issues of civil rights, economic justice, and peace, but he had never united the three in such a powerful and public way. He had never dissected the history of U.S. military imperialism with such thoroughness. But most strikingly, King launched his deepest, sharpest theological critique of America. No longer was he only holding America accountable to the ideals of her founding documents. Now King was addressing the mechanisms of empire—not just its bitter fruits—and holding America accountable to God.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2007
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God's Beloved

Thanks to Brian McLaren for his essay “decoding” the “kingdom of God” (“Found in Translation,” March 2006), and offering an alternative lexicon for this fundamental notion of Jesus’ proclamation. It was fine to omit from his list the common creative alternatives like the “kindom of God” over which others have struggled, or to duck the translational debate between “realm” vs. “reign” of God.

However, I thought he passed over too quickly what has become my own term of choice: Dr. King’s phrase “the beloved community.” In addition to summoning the memory of that movement history and the price King paid for invoking it (and so retaining some of the crucial political content), this term for the rich diversity of the “kingdom” has the further advantage of bridging from realm to community—and so offering an alternative for another well-worn term (one that also suffers from a loss of edge and of its original political meaning)—“the church.”

Bill Wylie-Kellermann
Detroit, Michigan

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Sojourners Magazine May 2006
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Dangerous Spirituality

"You have not come to hear a detached, scholarly lecture about the two powerful figures who are on our program. I am deeply and unavoidably attached. Fully engaged. One of them, Howard Thurman, was my adopted father, pastor, and spiritual guide. The other, Martin King, was my adopted brother and leader in the struggle." So began Dr. Vincent Harding, delivering the first Sojourners Spirituality Lecture, excerpted below, on March 10, 1998. Harding's lecture was delivered in Howard University's Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel in Washington, D.C., where Howard Thurman once served as dean. —The Editors

In their different and sometimes similar ways, Howard Thurman and Martin King represented a spirituality deeply, solidly based in one place, among one people, about which they had no doubts at all. Just as Jesus of Nazareth represented a spirituality based in one place, among one people, about whom he had no doubts at all. At the same moment, both King and Thurman reached out far, far beyond that ground and that base and saw no contradictions in being grounded and reaching out as part of one motion of spirit and life.

Thurman was—and this was a deep part of his spirituality—a seeker. Thurman was never satisfied with the truth that he had achieved, knowing always that there was more to come, and that he must never think that he had found it all. And so in 1935, Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman—her name must be connected to his and his to hers, because they were a magnificent team and she was as powerful a figure as you could think of—went to India.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1999
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An Unrealized Dream

One of the most instructive but little-known stories in the search for racial healing is the intriguing relationship between two of the most significant American Christians of the 20th century. Two years after the Montgomery bus boycott began, Billy Graham invited Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver a prayer at his 1957 crusade in New York City. It was an amazing step for a white Southern preacher with a growing national reputation who already was being criticized for taking racial integration too far.

The two held three private strategy meetings in the months afterward. King began to look at Graham's crusades as a model for his mass meetings and dreamed about joint crusades that would convert racially mixed audiences first in the North and ultimately in the Deep South.

Imagine the power of a King-Graham alliance: Two southerners—one America's great apostle of justice, the other, our great apostle of evangelism, together in the pulpit. Graham cutting the air with a challenge, calling for the heart change, "You must be born again!"; King's voice resounding, calling for the proof: the "descendants of former slaves and slave-holders sitting at the table of fellowship together."

But King and Graham broke ranks over a tension that continues to plague our attempts at becoming one body. In his history of the civil rights movement, Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch writes:

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1998
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No Hero of Convenience

Vincent Harding has written a passionate and disturbing book. In a collection of eight essays (seven previously published, one delivered as a lecture), he addresses what he calls our national amnesia-a determination to forget or ignore Martin Luther King's demands for a radical restructuring of American society. In our amnesia, "we have frozen the frame of the smiling, victorious hero, locked in the magnificent voice proclaiming the compelling dream."

Harding, professor of religion and social transformation at Iliff School of Theology, reminds us that a selective memory that focuses primarily on the images of the 1963 March on Washington allows us conveniently to ignore the issues King addressed in the last two or three years of his life-what King called the triple threat to the future of American society: racism, militarism, and materialism. And with such a collective forgetting, we can avoid facing the implication of King's call for a renewal of America.

But, says Harding, King is an inconvenient hero. "For those who seek a gentle, non-abrasive hero whose recorded speeches can be used as inspirational resources for rocking our memories to sleep, Martin Luther King, Jr., is surely the wrong man." Harding implores us to replace the media-devised sentimental memories of King with memories of the radical King, the King of the "Beyond Vietnam" speech of 1967, and the King who called for an end to poverty at home and abroad through the reordering of America's values and a withdrawal from our imperialistic designs around the world.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1996
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