"I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that when we are submitting them to . . .is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved."
Martin Luther King spoke passionately to the suffering of soldiers in combat and returning war veterans in a way that challenges and informs us today. Exactly one year before his assassination, he gave an address at Riverside Church in New York to a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned, that included the passages above. Alternately referred to as "A Time to Break Silence," "Beyond Vietnam," or "When Silence is Betrayal," the content is no less riveting than "I Have a Dream" but is rarely quoted on the King holiday.
Revisiting it now, I am struck by its contemporary relevance. At Riverside, King talked of soldiers from poor backgrounds serving and dying in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the larger population, of black young men told that they were fighting to insure freedoms that--truth be told-- they did not fully enjoy at home. Dr. King railed against this "cruel manipulation," adding that it was an equally "cruel irony" that Americans could watch TV images of black and white soldiers killing and dying together "for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools." Their lives were being sucked into what he called a "demonic destructive suction tube" that swallowed people, skills, resources, and futures.
It seems to me that for some years now we have been witnessing the cynical, cruel manipulation of brave soldiers and veterans in order to prolong the spiritually bankrupt "war on terror." During the Bush Administration, support of war based upon lies was demanded as a way of being "loyal to the troops." The cruel irony is that it was the commander-in-chief's lying disloyalty, and our complicity, that created the predicament. Suggesting that more soldiers needed to die, kill, and be traumatized in order to be faithful to them has been what Dr. King would call "brutal solidarity." The new administration has employed the language of change but invested in much the same substance. The"demonic destructive suction tube" continues to swallow futures, sacrificed to a perverse prosperity.
Amid all of the tortured justifications for the compounding of violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, at "black sites," and at home, the truth of what has been done to our sons and daughters has been revealed publicly in the epidemic proportions of PTSD, depression, brain injury, suicide; inadequate services and repeated official denial of the scope of suffering; the horror of continued multiple deployments. It's all there to be heard, seen, and felt.
In New York, Martin insisted that America unilaterally repent of our violence. He demanded that we admit where we had been wrong, and be willing to take specific, concrete steps to initiate healing and create a context where new life might take shape. His insistence that we stop bombing immediately, declare a unilateral ceasefire, curtail military buildups in Southeast Asia, and humanize everyone involved, was met with shock and anger. After all, he was demanding in the name of God that all our cycles of destruction be interfered with and broken.
Were he with us today, King would publicly name the cynical manipulation of soldiers for the domestic violence that it is. He would magnify their humanity. He would insist that repentance be honestly undertaken in the trauma care, healing, and amends that are public offered and committed to, regardless of the costs in money, energy, and acknowledged shame. Deployments would stop immediately. This effort would not join the war effort; it would replace it in priority. The future would have to take a radically different shape.
Dr. King would demand of today's "clergy and laity concerned" that we no longer tolerate soldiers and veterans bearing the weight of our collective sins. We would need to repent the silence of our betrayal.This would be a "revolution of values" we would embody. Real, vulnerable solidarity in place of the "brutal" version. Local faith communities would study the elements/ stages of the healing journey; commit spiritual, communal, and personal resources to accompaniment and the addressing of spiritual needs for veterans and their families; open ourselves to personal transformation. Our sacrificial theologies would be blessed casualties.
We would do well to hear the prophet speaking to us on this Monday in January. His "texts' can be studied and translated for the present era. Even today, Martin's spirit offers us fresh inspiration, leading us to new experiences of the beloved community.