Monday, January 15, 2007

"A time comes when silence is betrayal."

Ironically, the words from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1967 speech at Riverside Church in Manhattan that John Edwards quoted Sunday and made the central theme of his own speech were not King's own words. "A time comes when silence is betrayal," as King's opening made clear, were the words of his hosts, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam.
I join you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has 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."
The phrase was ideally suited to set the tone of Edwards' speech.
And forty years ago, as others have said, a year to the day before he was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, he stood in this pulpit, in this house of God, and with the full force of his conscience, and his conviction and his love for peace, he denounced the War in Vietnam, calling it a tragedy, a national tragedy, that threatened to drag America down, to drag us to dust.

As he put it then, there comes a time--not just for Dr. King, but for all of us--when silence is betrayal--not just betrayal of your own personal convictions, not just betrayal of your country, but a betrayal of our--all of our joint responsibility to each other, to our brothers and sisters, not just in America, but all across the globe.
And it made a perfect phrase with which to taunt his two main rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination -- Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- on Hillary's home ground, yet.
If you're in Congress and you know that this war is going in the wrong direction, and you know that we should not escalate this War in Iraq, it is no longer okay to study your options and keep your own private counsel.

Silence is betrayal. Speak out, and stop this escalation now. You have the power, members of Congress, to prohibit this President from spending any money to escalate this War--use that power. Use it now. Do not allow this President to make another mistake and escalate this War in Iraq.
It led to an early, pre-campaign dustup between the Clinton and Edwards camps.

Today, on Martin Luther King Day, I have mixed feelings about the Edwards speech. I'm not happy about his using Dr. King's words from 40 years ago to score points against his political opponents. On the other hand, I like a lot of what Edwards says. And I was very happy to see him draw attention to Dr. King's Riverside speech, which -- unlike the better known "I Have a Dream" speech -- is often overlooked on this day when we celebrate Dr. King's birthday. No wonder. It was the first time he publicly connected the Vietnam war and the plight of America's poor people.
It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
That's still powerful stuff. And just one year to the day before he was assassinated, he talked about the relationship between American capitalism, militarism and racism. This was the speech that lost him the support of most of America's white liberals, who lagged behind him in his understanding of the nature of the Vietnam war and began to see him as a dangerous radical -- which the Right, of course, always had. (I'd be a little more convinced that Edwards means what he says if he had quoted from this part of the speech, but again, I'm glad he helped shine a spotlight on it, however indirectly.)
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

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 with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples 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. [sustained applause]

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
Four decades later, we still haven't learned. At the time Dr. King delivered this address, Johnson was escalating the Vietnam war and, due to the Cold War, nuclear annihilation always lurked around the edges. Today, Bush is escalating the Iraq war and persistent rumors keep surfacing that nuclear bunker busters will be used against Iran.
We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
That's still the challenge.

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