Creating Truth & Transformation Drawing On MLK + 50
Facing the Trump Presidency, We Can Learn From the Teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The election of Donald Trump arose from a profound spiritual, cultural, and political crisis in American society. Two halves of the country both feel themselves left out –– and have turned to attacking each other, rather than transforming the system that keeps them both under debilitating pressure
The election brought an unexpected outpouring of the “Old American left-outs” – blue-collar white men and women –– into a moment’s triumph. We have already seen a first response from the “New American left-outs” in the spontaneous demonstrations that erupted all over America within 24 hoursof the election, and in many commitments to resistance and opposition that have arisen since.
We need to crystallize this outburst into a broadly embracing movement of movements that can pursue acts of nonviolent, loving, assertive, and empowering creativity. Acts that reach across the present barricades to make sense to both the “Old” and “New” Americas, to nurture the seeds of a new society and to challenge institutions that are domineering and destructive.
When we face great trouble, we must draw on great treasures. At this crucial moment, there is great potential value in the fact that the fiftieth anniversary of the last year in the life of Martin Luther King is fast approaching. For Dr. King’s wisdom is a great treasure, just as the great religious texts of ancient times are great treasures for us in times of great trouble.
This year will stretch from the 50th anniversary of April 4, 1967 — when he gave his most profound, prophetic, and provocative sermon — “Beyond Vietnam: Time to Break Silence” at Riverside Church in New York City — to the 50th anniversary of April 4, 1968, when he was murdered.
The Shalom Center has already begun the work to shape this year — the year of “MLK + 50” — into a Year of Truth and Transformation.
We need your help in this time of emergency, to grow the seeds we have already planted and that have begun to sprout, into the Year of Truth and Transformation.
Dr. King’s prophetic sermon startled and shook the nation by opposing the Vietnam War – a stance that in itself broke new and difficult ground for Dr. King and for Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, sitting beside him in full agreement.
Dr. King’s words went indeed “beyond” Vietnam to name racism, militarism, and materialism as deadly triplets afflicting America, and to call for an American “radical revolution in values.”
And the entire speech was rooted in Dr. King’s profound commitment to active nonviolence. To seeking what of human need and Godly value could be addressed even in “enemies” and could be turned toward the creation of the Beloved Community.
Dr. King understood strategic nonviolence to require shaping a politics beyond race, to include as allies not only communities of color but also in the “Poor People’s Campaign” and “Resurrection City” the poverty-ridden whites of Appalachia, and to lift up a vision of “Beloved Community.”
That vision could today become an important aspect of uniting all the “left-out” Americas, including some of those white blue-collar men and women who now see themselves as marginalized – economically, culturally, and spiritually — by the “new America” of Blacks, immigrants, Muslims, feminists, GLBTQ folks — and who have out of fear, despair, and anger turned to Trump.
Devising a language and a politics that addresses not only their economic squeeze but their cultural and spiritual despair must be part of the task of a Kingly Transformation.
Fifty years after Dr. King spoke, the triplets he named have produced some monstrous offspring:
- Materialism run amok has created new billionaires who can flood elections with their money, while leaving the poor and the middle class to lose any hope of prosperity for themselves and their children, their sense of dignity, and even their expectation of lengthening lives -– as the life-spans of some lower-middle-class Americans begin to decline for the first time in American history.
- Materialism and racism have coupled to birth corporate greed so extreme as to be prepared to burn our planet for the sake of profit, and to wound most deeply the communities of color and poverty in the US and the world.
- Militarism has come home and has coupled with racism to birth mass incarceration, police violence, and ever-present gun homicides.
What could all of us be doing to bring Dr. King’s wisdom and the symbolic power of his life and memory to bear on our present crisis?
1) Dr. King’s real birthday, January 15, will fall on a Sunday. His official Birthday will fall on Monday, January 16. The Inauguration of President Trump will come on Friday, January 20.
2) Already the Stony Point retreat center 45 miles north of New York City has set aside January 16-19 as a workshop week on “Beyond ‘Beyond Vietnam’: Reclaiming King’s Courage-for-Movement-Building.
I will be one of the teacher/guides.
3) At Stony Point or elsewhere on MLK Birthday, we could set our intentions and begin organizing for MLK + 50 — A Jubilee Year of Truth and Transformation, with the deliberate intention of shaping the America that our next President must address.
4) We can set as a goal that on or about April 4, 2017, people will gather in our own congregations, our own campuses, our own neighborhoods, our own PTA’s, even our own homes, to read the Riverside speech, discuss how to apply it today, and plan how to act to heal America from the triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism.
5) Beginning right now, we can spread the word. Ask your local MLK Day of Service Committee to add an April 4 Read-the-Speech observance to their plans. Ask your congregation, your neighborhood association, your college, to announce an April 4 gathering and schedule readers of the “Beyond Vietnam” sermon, commentators who respond to it as not an archive of the past but an inspiration, a prophetic call into the present and the future. .
6) During the year that follows, all of us can plan specific times and places to challenge the “triplets” in two ways: Truth and Transformation — Truth about the past and present, Transformation toward what Dr. King called the “Beloved Community”:
a) For example, choose an Exxon-related place to hold a weekly vigil on the theme “Exxon lied, & people died”; (b) At the same time, organize a neighborhood solar-energy co-op.
Or (a) Join the fight for a decent budget for the public schools in your own city, while (b) also organizing Sunday “freedom schools” to connect the dots between personal troubles and structural disempowerment, and teach how to work for profound social change
7) After a year of grass-roots work of Truth and Transformation, we look toward April 4, 2018, as a Day of Action, Atonement, and At-ONE-ment. The day might include vigils or dawn-to-dusk fasting called by religious communities, teach-ins called by students and faculty at colleges, work stoppages called by labor unions or businesses, acts of nonviolent civil disobedience called by various social-activist groups, etc.
In the “Beyond Vietnam” sermon, Dr. King spoke of “the fierce urgency of Now.” Fifty years later, the urgency is even fiercer.
Do we live in a time of great danger? Yes. Out of this thorn-bush, Danger, we can pluck this flower — Transformation.
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[These excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King’s prophetic seermon on April 4, 1967, were chosen for study by Sharon Stout of the Adelphi Friends Meeting in Maryland]
… I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.”
A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death…
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.
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.
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 We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.
We must move past indecision to action. 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. The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
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It takes organizers and a website filled with resources for action and reports from the field, to grow these words I’m writing, these seeds of change, into sturdy oaks of Transformation. And therefore, it takes money.