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Martin Luther King, Jr and Thomas Merton on War

January 20, 2020

Today we marched from Old Town, Fort Collins, Colorado to the campus of Colorado State University. At the university we heard a powerful AND challenging call to action. A call for us to stop deferring the Dream… to move from the preservation of the Dream to making the Dream manifest in this world through action!

As we marched I thought of the futility of war and how often the military is one of the few options left to men and women of color in a world where more doors are shut than open to them. I also thought of Dr King and Thomas Merton. Both spoke out against the futility of war and the immorality of the Atomic Arms Race and the Vietnam War in particular. Their public protests gained them some enemies in high places in the US Government. Their public protests also helped to raise awareness of the immorality and futility of war.

Dr King delivered an incredibly important sermon against the war when he stepped into the pulpit of New York City’s Riverside Church on April 4th, 1967. The following are some quotes from that speech:

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization that brought us together, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam…

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. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement, and pray that our inner being may be sensitive to its guidance. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us…

Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

It was this turn in his preaching and call to address the violation of the God-given rights of ALL of God’s children that garnered hostility from all corners of this land.

Thomas Merton also endured threats and censure for his own efforts to speak out against the immorality of the Arms Race and the Vietnam War. In a journal entry from October 20th, 1962 Merton wrote the following:

The U.S. is now spending more each year on armament than was spent in any year before 1942 for the entire national budget. The people who demand that the government “interfere” in nothing–just pour money into the armament industry and provide a strong police for “security.” But stay out of everything else! No interference in medicine, mental health, education, etc. etc. But these are the ones who have their way. Never was a country at once shrewder and less wise–shrewd in nonessentials and lunatic in essentials.

On the one hand, Merton’s writings against the war got into the hands of Pope John XXIII and inspired the Holy Father to begin steering the church in the direction of peace instead of the support of the Arms Race and the Military Industrial Complex. In his journal entry of October 16th, 1963 he wrote:

He {Pope John XXIII} said the people of the world want peace. That God will judge severely the rulers who fail in their responsibility to the people.

Nearly sixty years later, this nation has come no closer to walking in the way of peace than it was back then. In fact, the tools of war have only become far worse. The rhetoric from the politicians is even more divisive and hate-filled.

Sadly, there are no easy answers to the ethical quagmire revealed in “humankind’s inhumanity towards humankind.” Yet the challenge remains for us, dear reader. Will we simply memorialize the words of Dr King and trot them out once a year? Will we relegate Merton’s writings to the scholars and the library? Or will we hear the voices of these prophets and others AND respond to their call with ACTION?

That was the challenge I heard today from Dr Ryan Ross (A Biography of Dr Ryan Ross). That is the challenge that will inhabit my waking and sleeping thoughts. It is a challenge that I must respond to!

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