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In April 1967, a year before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on the “fierce urgency of now” in a sermon entitled, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” Of all his speeches, it remains the least remembered because it summoned Christians to protest Vietnam. Despite the specific historical references, however, King’s argument that civil
rights and world peace are interwoven offers profound insights into today’s problems and the human future.
King called for revolutionary love, the urgency of change, and for
ecumenical world community. On this Martin Luther King
Day, I hope you will take the time to read this selection from the sermon and
commit yourself to “eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” With the continuing war in Iraq and Afghanistan and incipient revolutions in Tunisia and other parts of the world, America needs to understand and fully embrace the “urgency of now.” There is, as King warned, such a thing as being too late.
From Beyond Vietnam by Martin Luther King, Jr.:
These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting
against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a
frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless
and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. “The people
who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” We in the West must support
these revolutions. It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a
morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western
nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world
have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries . . . Our only hope today lies in
our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes
hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.
With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and
unjust mores and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be
exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall
be made straight and the rough places plain.”
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our
loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now
develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the
best in their individual societies.
This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern
beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an
all-embracing and unconditional love for all men . . . When I speak of love I
am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that
force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying
principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to
ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about
ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:
Let us love one another; for love is God and
everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth
not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his
love is perfected in us.
Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no
longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of
retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides
of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that
pursued this self-defeating path of hate.
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted
with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history
there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of
time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost
opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the
flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage,
but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and
jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words:
“Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully
records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and
having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today; nonviolent
coexistence or violent co-annihilation.
We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak
for peace . . . and justice
throughout the developing world — a world that borders on our doors. If we do
not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of
time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without
morality, and strength without sight.
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter
— but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons
of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds
are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be
that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men,
and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing,
of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause,
whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise
we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.