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Issue Date:  April 18, 2008

Avoided: King's reality

In the outpouring of words and events related to Martin Luther King Jr. on the 40th anniversary of his death April 4, his legacy unfortunately, if unsurprisingly, got shortchanged. As one Catholic preacher put it the Sunday after the celebrations: We’ve become comfortable in watering down his message and reducing it to four words, “I have a dream.”

Indeed King did have a dream. What often gets lost is the reality that he preached for the nearly five years after his famous “dream” speech. King was a preacher and his “dream” of ending segregation grew out of his understanding of both the Christian Gospel’s liberating message and his understanding of the nonviolent Jesus.

In confronting the sins of slavery and racism, King had to deconstruct a host of national myths and delusions. He demanded that white America confront itself. Having plunged so deeply into the American soul, it was a natural progression to see beyond the bounds of racism and the politics of segregation and realize that violence was consuming the country in other ways. His immediate target was the Vietnam War, but he was quick to label that as a “symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.”

If King had lived, he would surely be grieved by the way violence grips our nation today. King said a “radical revolution of values” was essential in order to “get on the right side of the world revolution” he foresaw. Instead, we have gone deeper into the debilitating quagmire of mass violence and militarism.

The money the United States spends on the military is approaching a trillion dollars a year and our highest officials justify torture. Guns proliferate on our streets. Our pulpits are largely silent on the issues.

We’ve made King safe, just as we’ve made our Gospel safe. What motivates our political leaders to confront the state’s pursuit of violence when our religious leaders are mum?

Everyone on the political stump this year connected King’s legacy with dreams. None, however, reminded us of words spoken by King in his final years. No one repeated these lines, so apt for the moment: “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 ... 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.”

Run that speech on YouTube today and see how many candidates who revered his memory would be asked to explain their association with such a radical condemnation of the American way of life.

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2008

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