On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke for about an hour at Riverside Church in New York City on the Vietnam War. I was sixteen at the time and my parents were skeptical of Dr. King’s motives, and, to be honest, some of that rubbed off on me. It was also around this time that I listened to a radio address by another famous preacher, Dr. Stephen Olford from Calvary Church in New York. Olford, like King, called for peace in Vietnam. These two preachers from across the Christian spectrum got my attention. Their passion for Jesus’s Kingdom ethic and the fullness of their moral vision got me thinking for the first time about racism and war.
Dr. King explained that he was compelled to break his silence and speak out against the Vietnam War because “a time comes when silence is betrayal.” He said we must accept the “vocation of agony” and “with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision” we must speak. He gave seven carefully nuanced reasons for his passionate plea to his “beloved nation” to end the war in Vietnam. They are all significant, and the speech is well worth reading in its entirety, but it was his sixth reason that stood out to me.
He explained that the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize had placed a burden of responsibility on him that took him “beyond national allegiances.” But that “burden” was second to his “commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ.” To those who questioned his motives, Dr. King said,
“Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all [people]—for Communist and Capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?”
After King gave his seven reasons for breaking his silence over the war, he went on to “ponder the madness of Vietnam” by describing the tragic history of Vietnam. He carefully laid out the history of colonialism, dictatorial rule, and American involvement, before urging “our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment.” Dr. King’s speech does not end there. He went on to say, “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” He called for “a radical revolution of values.” He said, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” Dr. King’s moral vision for America called for a true compassion for all people, a transformation of values based on social justice and real democracy. To that end, we have a long way to go.
I read Dr. King’s speech a few days after the mayhem in Washington D.C. and the storming of the U. S. Capitol by an angry, violent mob of pro-Trump supporters who were bent on overturning the 2020 Presidential election. They believed the lie that the election was “rigged” and “stolen.” Who could blame them? The President of the United States had said so a thousand times. Since that day of insurrection and infamy, we have witnessed a steady video record of rage as “Christian conservatives” and white supremacists joined forces to threaten our democracy and the U.S. Constitution. It will go down as a sad and tragic day in American history.
But I hope and pray that Christ’s followers have reached a tipping point, that we have reached the time to break silence. The faculty and staff of Wheaton College, my alma mater, released a statement that said with courage what needs to be said. It reads in part,
The January 6 attack on the Capitol was characterized not only by vicious lies, deplorable violence, white supremacy, white nationalism, and wicked leadership—especially by President Trump—but also by idolatrous and blasphemous abuses of Christian symbols. The behaviors that many participants celebrated in Jesus’ name bear absolutely no resemblance to the Christian teachings or ethics that we submit to as faculty and staff of Wheaton College.
Furthermore, the differential treatment displayed by those with a duty to protect in their engagement with rioters who trespassed on the Capitol grounds illegally, when compared to recent protests over police brutality in D.C. last summer, illustrates the ongoing reality that systemic racism in our country is tragically and undeniably alive and well. These realities are reprehensible. Our Christian faith demands shining a light on these evils and the simultaneous commitment to take appropriate action. . . .
Our Christian faith demands greater courage. We repent of our own failures to speak and to act in accordance with justice, and we lament the failures of the Church to teach clearly and to exercise adequate church discipline in these areas. Moreover, we grieve over the inadequate level of discipleship that has made room for this type of behavior among those who self-identify as Christian. We pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal to us all manner of idolatry, and we commit to speaking plainly against it wherever and whenever we find it. . . .
Dr. Douglas Webster is professor of pastoral theology and Christian preaching. He will take part in a virtual MLK Day panel on Monday, Jan. 18, at 6 p.m. on Facebook sponsored by Samford University's Office of Diversity and Intercultural Initiatives.