Reflection on MLK’s “Beyond Vietnam”

On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.  On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in the pulpit at Riverside Church in New York City (a church where he had spoken many times before)  and delivered a speech calling for a comprehensive peace, naming “war as enemy of the poor,” and publicly criticized the US government for the war in Vietnam.

In modern times, we frequently picture Dr. King as a universally-admired champion of civil rights.  Many of us can recite segments of his dream or his mountaintop vision. But the man who spoke at Riverside Church that day was not universally admired.  In fact, in the aftermath of the “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Dr. King was wildly unpopular. Those who had already opposed him threw the label “communist” at him.  The FBI increased its monitoring of him as an “enemy of the state.” Many within the civil rights movement criticized him, claiming that focusing on peace undermined the “cause of the people.”

Dr. King knew he would be rejected, yet he spoke for peace anyway. “Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.” Though it was new territory publicly, Dr. King described his journey – “I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church—the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate—leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.”  His calls for a radical peace were a natural sequence of his “commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men—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?” Dr. King spoke of peace, despite its unpopularity, because it was simply the next step in following Jesus, another Man of sorrows, who was despised and rejected by men.  

As I reflect on this speech and move toward Easter Week, I am struck by several lessons.

  1. When I follow Jesus, I can only see the next step on the path ahead; I cannot see around the bend. I take each step in faith, trusting Him.  
  2. Following Jesus can be wildly unpopular.  It emboldens those who would oppose me, and sometimes confuses those who love me.  In these times, I can take encouragement from the Holy Spirit and by the stories of those who have experienced isolation in His name before – Dr. King, the apostle Paul, Jesus Himself.  
  3. When I feel most exposed and alone, God may be drawing me into a new circle of brotherhood and fellowship.  The “beloved community” that Dr. King had been speaking of for over 10 years stretched in this moment to include an international community of those engaged in the same struggle. “All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” Perhaps part of the isolation I’m feeling may be God opening the way to new relationships, people who have experiences in common with me that I can’t even imagine yet.  
  4. Love is a revolutionary force. Dr. King summarized – “a worldwide 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 mankind.”  The daily choice to love, in the manner that Jesus is loved by God and loves us. The love that each of you shows your students, like Dom described earlier for his 5th graders, is part of this worldwide revolution.
  5. Through love, I have hope.  Dr. King spoke of complex, powerful systems – poverty, materialism, militarism – that hold the world in their grasp.  Yet, the daily choice to love, and through love to take the next in following Jesus, is how I can do my chisel-sized part of tearing down these giant walls.  

When we in the MTR family dream of “restored communities living with dignity and in peace” in classroom-sized, school-sized, and neighborhood-sized pockets of Memphis, we are stepping into this radical revolution that Dr. King imagined 51 years ago.  And that Jesus invited us into nearly 2000 years ago. May we take courage and follow.

-Kat McRitchie, MTR Staff