A Nation Approaching Spiritual Death
Editor’s Note: The celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday may have special resonance for some Americans this year, given last weekend’s political massacre in Tucson and the recent escalation of the war in Afghanistan.
Beyond his celebrated work inspiring a non-violent civil rights movement, King also was a devoted follower of Jesus who risked his standing in the United States by forcefully opposing the Vietnam War and challenging Washington’s massive spending on weapons and violence, as Gary Kohls notes in this guest essay:
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Those were the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech that he delivered on April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day of his 1968 assassination in Memphis, Tennessee.
The people who heard that speech recognized it as one of the most powerful speeches ever given articulating the immorality of the Vietnam War.
Some also realized that King was signing his own death warrant by exposing so forcefully those groups and individuals who orchestrated and carried out what Thomas Merton accurately characterized as “the overwhelming atrocity that was Vietnam.”
King was speaking out from his deeply felt sense of anguish and outrage at the horrible sufferings and deaths of millions of innocent and unarmed Vietnamese civilians, mostly women, children and the aged.
King knew that non-combatants were the main victims of a whole host of lethal U.S. weapons, including one of the U.S. Air Force’s favorites, napalm, which burned the flesh off of whatever part of the body that the flaming, jellied gasoline splashed on.
King knew of the atrocities that hundreds of thousands of unaware U.S. soldiers were ordered to commit because of that absurd and long-discredited “domino theory.”
He saw the clear racist similarities between the killing of dispensable “gooks” on the battlefields of Southeast Asia and the oppression, discrimination, segregation, impoverishment, imprisonment and lynching of “dispensable blacks” in America.
Remembered as a secular civil rights leader, King was far more than that.
King was being faithful to his commitment to the ethical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth by speaking out against injustice wherever he saw it.
Just like his contemporaries in the South American, gospel-based liberation theology movements, King knew that the violence of institutionalized racism, poverty and militarism had the same sources: fear of “the other” and the willingness of the greedy, ruling elite (who controlled the churches, the police and the economy) to violently protect their own wealth and power from the working class and the underprivileged poor - from whom the elite’s wealth was extracted.
King knew that the opposition to his gospel-inspired nonviolent resistance movement was formidable. It came from cruel far right-wing Klan members and their sympathizers in the neofascist South and from his more respectable religious detractors - the conservative white clergy that dominated the “Christianity” of America.
Even deadlier opposition came from the CIA, the Mafia and from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI; but opposition also came from silent, guilty bystanders who should have had the courage to have spoken up and actively joined the movement. …
The Vietnam War was popular with many powerful segments of society, including many in the investor class, the economic elite, the holy war Christians, the superpatriots, the white military veterans, the Pentagon, the CIA, etc, etc.
King’s anti-war stance threatened those group’s self-interests, and he knew it.
Courageous prophet that he was, King persisted in protesting America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. …
King knew, better than most, the teachings of Jesus on the matter of violence and he felt compelled to continue to speak out.
Initially, many in the civil rights movement tried to get him to stop talking about the war. But King stuck to his convictions. He knew that the indiscriminate mass slaughter that always occurs in modern wars was contrary to the gospel teachings.
So, getting no capitulation from the prophet, a massive disinformation campaign was begun, similar to the campaigns that had been orchestrated against other outspoken, dangerous altruists like Jesus of Nazareth, Gandhi, Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Paul Wellstone.
The easily brain-washable public bought the lies, and support for King and the movement waned. Powerful covert agencies, including unknown law enforcement officials, led the campaign. …
King was right about a lot of things, including his prophecy that America was losing its soul. Violence of all types was, and still is, endemic in our culture, especially the violence of poverty, racism and militarism.
Physical assaults, rapes and neglect are epidemic in America, as is gun violence.
Corporations and investors who make obscene profits in the weapons industry have sabotaged even the most modest handgun and assault rifle control legislation – all the while successfully flooding America and the world with increasingly lethal rapid fire, personalized, hand-held weapons of mass destruction.
The institutionalized military violence that was exemplified in the Vietnam War era seems to be alive and well in our supposedly more-enlightened time.
Consider the rhetoric we will be witnessing in the aftermath of last weekend’s Tucson assault-weapon murders.
The National Rifle Association will be publishing press releases and lobbying their hundreds of bribed politicians advising everybody to go slow on legislating sensible laws restricting their lethal weapons.
We will be hearing disingenuous “mea non culpa” claims of innocence in the matter from the violence-inciting, gun-toting Tea Party that preached so much hatred and violence during the last political campaign.
Discredited right-wing politicians like Sarah Palin will be lying about the effect of their campaigns to incite fear and hatred of their liberal “mortal enemies.”
And we will hear protests of innocence from the every right-wing politician in the nation, none of whom, including the new Speaker of the House John Boehner, Minnesota’s ex-Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michelle Bachmann, were ever heard to object to Palin’s vitriolic “gunsight” tactics that were aimed at their mutual enemies.
And, of course, the right-wing radio and TV “celebrities” like Limbaugh and the hate-mongering talking heads from Fox News (Hannity, O’Reilly and Beck) who have been rallying their easily brainwashable followers to “lock and load” (which meant, for who knows how many of their irrational followers, that the use of violence was OK).
It may be too late now to stop the carnage or the soul destruction of our once-respectable nation.
Both the affluent and the poor have succumbed to the addictions of America’s exploitive, corrupt, dog-eat-dog capitalist system, a bubble system that has run so far amok that it is obviously already bursting.
Addictions to entertainment, gambling, shopping, drugs (both legal and illegal), sports and religions have overwhelmed the lives of far too many Americans, who then have no time or inclination to tend to the nurturing and healing of their own souls, much less their nation’s soul.
During the 1980s and 1990s (the American Decades of Greed I and II), the anti-democracy elite spent their minds, time and money attaining wealth and power no matter what would be the cost to most of us, their victims.
And it seems like the Cheney/Bush/Obama Decade of Greed III that just passed was worse, what with the orchestrated and enforced permanent war economy and the Wall Street Ponzi schemes that were so devastating for the many but so profitable for the few.
Fear, hatred, violence and greed predictably blow out the spark of the divine in those humans who use violence. And the ability to be responsive to the suffering of others is inevitably diminished in both the victimizers and the victims.
Billions of innocent people are suffering in a world of agony that is not of their making.
At the end of his Beyond Vietnam speech, King concluded:
“War is not the answer. 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.”
America, including its current so-called “Christian” leaders, has failed the vision and missions of both Martin Luther King and Jesus. Our nation at times looks like it is on its spiritual deathbed.
The $2 billion per day that are wasted on war, war preparation and inedible weapons systems is money that is obviously unavailable for programs of social uplift, especially hunger relief, poverty alleviation, affordable housing, affordable education, affordable medical care and meaningful, life-sustaining jobs, not to mention helping to solve the crippling debt crises of our states and cities.
America is committing slow suicide.
The war profiteers may have sealed America’s doom when the administrations of Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Bush I instituted and/or continued the massive borrow and spend (deficit spending) policies that bloated America’s military machine.
And then, starting with the Reagan/Bush I era’s voodoo economics (that lavished massive tax breaks on the wealthy), the U.S. debt has now reached a crippling $14 trillion, greatly aggravated, of course, by Wall Street’s corporate malfeasance and the bankrupting wars of the Cheney/Bush/Obama regimes.
Martin Luther King, if he was still alive today, would have fulfilled his duty to again point out the immorality of the mass slaughtering of hundreds of thousands of innocent, unarmed civilians, this time in Iraq, Afghanistan and who knows what other locations around the U.S.-militarized globe.
The captains of industry, the financiers, the institutional investors and any number of conscienceless corporations that profit from war are again making out like bandits. And the wasted money will never be applied to even the most basic of human needs.
Is America’s spiritual corpse being hoisted up on top of the idolatrous altars of greed, blind patriotism and the decidedly un-Christ-like Gods of War and Wealth? Is there still time for a resuscitation attempt?
We Americans don’t have all that much time to debate the issue. America is being sucked rapidly downstream, getting ever closer to the high falls that drops straight down to spiritual oblivion. We are certainly much closer that we were 44 years ago.
I can hear Martin, and Jesus, weeping somewhere.
Dr. Kohls is a founding member of Every Church A Peace Church.
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