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”) names the sickness eating the American soul as “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” It was a watershed moment in American history. A year later – to the day – Dr. King was assassinated.
King’s address was drafted for him by his friend, and historian, Dr. Vincent G. Harding. King made minor changes, but essentially he delivered Harding’s original text. “I think 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 linked the issues of civil rights, economic justice, and peace, but he had never united the three is 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 a prophetic attack on the ” royal consciousness” (as theologian Walter Brueggemann calls it in The Prophetic Imagination) of America. “Prophecy,” writes Brueggemann, “is born precisely in that moment when the emergence of social political reality is so radical and inexplicable that it has nothing less than a theological cause.” No longer was King only holding America accountable to the ideals of her founding documents. Now King was addressing the mechanisms of empire – not just its strange fruits – and holding America accountable to God.
In his reflection “Breaking the Silence of Despair” theologian Bill Wylie-Kellermann writes: “In Christian theology it is often asked, ‘Why did Jesus die?’ but seldom wondered, ‘Why was Jesus killed?’ If we ask that of Dr. King, the answer would have to pass through his public opposition to the war in Vietnam. It would need to be traced in part to his speech at Riverside Church, forty year ago this holy week, exactly one year before his death.”
Dr. Harding recalled that in deciding to make the “Beyond Vietnam” speech, King in a sense “caught up with some of the more radical folks within the freedom movement, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC]. Because SNCC had been coming out openly opposed to the war especially out of the context of their gallant work in the grassroots southern rural communities and their coming into touch early with the boys who were coming back dead from their being drafted into that war. SNCC was encouraging others to raise real questions about what it meant for these young men to be sent to supposedly fight to protect democracy in Southeast Asia when there was no democracy for them in Southwest Georgia. Stokely [Carmichael] was very, very glad when he understood that Martin was going to lift this up to another level.”
The prescient thing about King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech is that you can replace the word “Vietnam” with “Iraq” and hear an indictment that still shakes us as Americans to the core of our soul. At the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq at the Washington National Cathedral in D.C. two weeks ago, I heard Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, the “spiritual home” of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preach a sermon that sent shivers down my spine.
“[President Bush] is pushing forward with his surge of troops, deepening our involvement in the morass of an unnecessary war. Ignoring public sentiment clearly expressed in this past November’s elections, ignoring the advice of his much trumpeted bi-partisan Iraq Study Group, and ignoring the counsel of his own generals, he insists that this is the way to go. And, the Congress, by its actions or lack of action this week, has proven thus far to be too morally inept to intervene, too politically compromised to act with real courage and conviction … On both sides of the aisle, the controlling concern is that America may lose the war, and so the question being asked is, ‘What are we going to do to keep from losing the war.’ I submit that as people of faith, we must re-frame the question and help others to understand that the danger confronting America is not that we may lose the war. The real danger is that America may well lose its soul. We must re-frame the question.”
“We must tap into the best of our respective faith traditions in order to redeem the soul of America. I remember my own crucified people who endured the cross of slavery and segregation. They identified with Jesus because existentially they knew what crucifixion was all about. In the spiritual, they asked, ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ And, during the era of Jim Crow segregation, they identified with this Jesus hung on a tree because they knew what lynching was all about. Billy Holiday used to sing about it. ‘Southern trees bear strange fruit. Blood on the leaves, blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.’ His own ruthless brutality notwithstanding, I could not help but hear that haunting song as I watched Saddam Hussein hang at our behest. I thought to myself, ‘Surely, we’re better than that!’ And before that the violent carnival and absurd human cruelty of Abu Ghraib (photos). Surely, we’re better than that! And then to witness the neglect of our own soldiers at Walter Reed! Surely, we’re better than that! We need a surge of troops in the nonviolent army of the Lord. We need to lift high the cross as ‘an eternal symbol of the extent to which God is willing to go to restore broken communities.’ We need a surge in conscience. A surge in truth telling and activism. We need a surge in the nonviolent army of the Lord.”
“‘A time comes when silence is betrayal,’” preached King. That time has come for us in relation to Iraq. How will you lift high the cross this Holy Week? How will you follow the Lord through the streets of American cities and the streets of Baghdad and Basra? Will you help carry the cross? Will you let your hearts be broken and converted? Will you shout that death has no dominion in the cross and resurrection of Christ? Will you proclaim that we are “better than this”? We, “the whole multitude of Jesus’ disciples” must “praise God aloud with joy for all the mighty deeds” we have seen (Luke 19:37). We must shout out that the Prince of Peace is sovereign: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest” (Luke 19:38). If we don’t do this—or if we are prevented from doing this—Jesus says: “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!” (Luke 19:40).
Rose Marie Berger, an Associate Editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.