"I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent. For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a civil rights leader?" and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: "To save the soul of America." We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!
Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land."
--An Excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech, delivered at Riverside Church in New York City, April 4, 1967.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.
--The story of Lazarus, John 11:1-7, 17
I want to tell you a story that might sound familiar to you. You see, a certain nation was ill, and his name was America. So a group called Clergy and Laity United sent a message to Martin Luther King: “Prophet, our nation’s soul is dying from the addiction of war. Come speak to us at Riverside Church.” King said, “Yes, let us go there.” His followers said to him, “Sir, the government is already trying to kill you for standing up for civil rights, and you are going to speak out against their war?” King said to them, “America has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him. Let us go.” His followers then said, “Let us go with Dr. King, that we may die with him.”
Some who did not like hearing the prophet criticize the war told the government what he had said. So the government called a meeting and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him.” One government official said, “It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” So from that day on they planned to put him to death. And indeed, he was assassinated after giving the speech at Riverside Church, one year later to the day, April 4, 1968.
Since then, I am sad to tell you, our patient America has, year after year, continued to spend more money on the deadly addiction to military defense than on social programs, with no end in sight. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that existing plans for U.S. nuclear forces will cost $400 billion over the next ten-year period. We recall the words of Dr. King: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” But in fact, we are no longer approaching. We are there. Think of the stench still wafting from the tomb of our recent election. Smell the rot coming from the White House today. Indeed, America has spent the last 50 years trying to turn the whole world into a grave through our endless wars.
So as we remember Dr. King today, let us think of him at Riverside Church, reading America’s autopsy report and seeing Vietnam—and now El Salvador, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. Let us remember him weeping over America’s poisoned soul and say to ourselves, “See how he loved America!” As we honor Dr. King’s tragic and premature death, it may be tempting to cry out, “If King had still been here, America would not have died.” But I ask you, do we believe that God can still give us what Dr. King taught us to ask for—a true revolution of values? Can you hear the prophet saying, “Your nation will rise again”? Can you hear him say with fierce urgency from beyond the grave, “Friends, the time is NOW. Unbind America and set him free.”
During this anniversary commemoration of the last year of King’s life, starting today until next April 4th, the 50th anniversary of his assassination, are we going to be Easter people? Will America rise up and leave behind the grave of its own making? The answer is up to us.