Martin Luther King Jr. – Beyond Afghanistan
There has recently come into my possession a letter from the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr that addresses the war in Afghanistan. It is miraculous, indeed, that the Martin Luther King should be writing a letter to you and to me more than 40 years after his death. How this is possible is something of an enigma wrapped in mystery. The important thing, however, is that we can imagine him writing a letter to Americans in 2010.
Some may notice that the letter corresponds almost word for word to his famous 1967 speech against the Vietnam war. Perhaps this means Dr. King sees the issues as little changed since then.
Yet clearly we must let Dr. King speak in his own words. Here is the letter as it stands before me.
I write now because my conscience leaves me no other choice. “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Afghanistan.
Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.
We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movements and pray that our own 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.
As I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Afghanistan, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.
I now make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. It is not addressed to Kabul or to the Taliban. It is not addressed to Iran or to Pakistan. Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Afghanistan. Neither is it an attempt to make al Queda or the Taliban out to be paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they must play in the successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reasons to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides.
Now, however, I wish not to speak to al Queda and the Taliban, but rather to my fellow Americans, who, with me, bear the greatest responsibility in ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents.
I have several reasons for bringing Afghanistan into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Afghanistan and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the wars in the Middle East, and I watched the programs broken and eviscerated as if they were some idle political playthings 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 Afghanistan 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.
People asked me if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Afghanistan. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America _will be_ are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
Another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission — a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.” This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my 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 Muslim and Christian, 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? What then can I say to al Queda or to bin Laden as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?
This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
And as I ponder the madness of Afghanistan and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that region. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the government in Kabul, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.
Our government felt then that the Afghan people were not “ready” for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. Now the Afghan people languish under our bombs and consider us — not their fellow Afghans — the real enemy.
Perhaps the more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies. What of al Queda – and that strangely anonymous group we call the Taliban? How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings even if we do not condone their actions.
They question our political goals. Their questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to build on political myth again and then shore it up with the power of new violence?
Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.
We are met by a deep but understandable mistrust. To speak for them is to explain this lack of confidence in Western words, and especially their distrust of American intentions now.
Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony can save bin Laden when he hears the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops bombs on a poor weak nation more than eight thousand miles away from its shores.
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried here so far to give a voice to the voiceless on Afghanistan and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Afghanistan 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 peril, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle amongst Afghans, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.
This Madness Must Cease
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Afghanistan. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Afghanistan. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America to the leaders of out own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.
An Buddhist monk living in Afghanistan recently wrote this to me:
“Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Afghans and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.”
If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Afghanistan. It will become clear that our minimal expectation is to occupy it as an American colony, and men will not refrain from thinking that our maximum hope is to goad Iran into a war so that we may bomb her nuclear installations. If we do not stop our war against the people of Afghanistan immediately the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horribly clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play.
The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Afghanistan, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Afghan people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.
In order to atone for our sins and errors in Afghanistan, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war. I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:
- End all bombing in Afghanistan
- Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
- Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in the Middle East and elsewhere.
- Realistically accept the fact that the Taliban has substantial support in Afghanistan and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and in any future Afghan government.
- Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Afghanistan.
Protesting The War
Meanwhile we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must continue to raise our voices if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Afghanistan. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative method of protest possible.
These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.
I say we must enter the struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing. The war in Afghanistan is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Iran and Pakistan. They will be concerned about Somalia and the Sudan. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Afghanistan, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken — the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. 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 hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
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.
This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against Islamic extremism. War is not the answer. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not call everyone an extremist or an appeaser who recognizes that hate and hysteria are not the final answers to the problem of these turbulent days. We must not engage in a negative anti-Muslim attitude, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against extremism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of radicalism grows and develops.
The People Are Important
It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Islamic extremism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, Islamic extremism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.”
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 mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
This call for a world-wide 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 men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept — so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force — has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:
Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.
Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says : “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect.
Omar Khayyam wrote: “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.
We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Afghanistan 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.
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:
Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
Twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong:
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.
And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.