Remarks in New York City, May 21, 2023
About a year-and-a-half before I was born down in midtown, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech up at Riverside Church called Beyond Vietnam. “A nation that continues year after year,” he said, “to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” He was well aware that the military was not being used in defense, but the language of war acceptance was by that point well-established. Now here we are over a half-century later, having long-ago approached, greeted, and gone beyond spiritual death, and we’re looking back from beyond the grave.
We’re here. We’re moving and speaking. But can we be said to be alive in a manner that’s sustainable for more than a split-second in the great scheme of things? We’re looking back from a world locked in a path to nuclear war, a path that points beyond nuclear war — should some great fortune or effort avoid it — to a slightly slower environmental destruction and collapse. We’re looking back from a moment when the world’s worst warmakers and weapons dealers have gathered in Hiroshima to tell us that war and weapons manufacture are a public service, and that they will do their duty and provide us ever more of that service.
“A time comes when silence is betrayal,” said Dr. King launching his words forward to our time when we can only long with great envy for silence, having grown accustomed to so much worse. When Dr. King made that speech, the U.S. military exaggerated upward and bragged about how many people it was killing, as a sign of progress. Today it kills and tells us it is saving lives, spreading democracy, providing a charitable benefit to humanity out of shear generosity. The more U.S. news you consume, the stupider you become. Give me silence, please!
The trouble is that people sometimes believe what they’re told. People imagine that, as has not been true for over 80 years, the majority of the dying and suffering in wars is done by the military invading and occupying a country. I mean, not if Russia does it. Then the vast bulk of the victims — the people who live in Ukraine — are standing in a spotlight. But in U.S. wars, the bombs are imagined to explode gently at eye-level with little flowers and Constitutions fluttering out.
In reality, of those killed in U.S. wars — or U.S. proxy wars for that matter — the U.S. deaths are no more than a few percent, and when we consider those indirectly killed by the destruction of nations, the U.S. deaths become a fraction of one percent. War is one-sided slaughter.
But if we return to the idea of spending something on programs of social uplift, then the deaths and injuries and suffering multiply manyfold and are anywhere on Earth, including right here, that we could have spent the money instead of spending it on organized murder.
If Dr. King had not been murdered one year after that speech, we cannot know what he would have said today, assuming the world to be as it is today. But we can be fairly sure he would have said it into a black hole of media censorship and wild accusations of being in the employ of Vladimir Putin. He could conceivably have said something slightly similar to this (if we excerpt and modify and add to his speech from 1967):
It should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of the world today can ignore the path that led to the war in Ukraine, or the two sides, not one, that are struggling to prevent peace.
And as I ponder the madness of Ukraine and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that country and of the Crimean peninsula. They must see Americans as strange liberators. They voted overwhelmingly to rejoin Russia following a U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine. No one proposes that they vote again. No one proposes that they be persuaded to vote differently. Instead, they are to be retaken by force, whether they like it or not, and whether or not it brings on a nuclear war and a nuclear winter from which no one will ever recover.
Russia remembers how U.S. leaders have refused to tell us the truth about earlier negotiations for peace, how the president has claimed that none existed when they clearly did. Many of the world’s governments are urging peace, and the U.S. government is providing fighter jets and an insistance on war. We need the U.S. goverment to reverse course, to end weapons shipments, to cease the enlargement of military alliances, to support a ceasefire, and to allow negotiations with compromise and verifiable steps by both sides so that a modicum of trust can be restored.
A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings, of filling the world’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of leaving men, women, and children physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to humankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
Dr. King was something of the best in this society. We should listen.