Friday, April 04, 2008

Breaking the Silence: Riverside Church Forty-One Years Ago

Forty years ago today, April 4th 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Forty-one years ago on the same date, he spoke to a gathering of “Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam” at Riverside Church in New York City.

I don’t recall hearing anything about this event when it happened. At the time Dr. King spoke, I was assigned to the 3rd Armored Division in Germany, one of the four U.S. combat units whose ostensible mission, should war come again in Europe, was to block any Warsaw Pact attempt to use the “Fulda Gap” – a break in the Haartz Mountains that was a traditional invasion route from the east into the North German Plains. That the Soviets and East Germans could muster some 80 divisions against perhaps 15-20 NATO divisions was a clear indication that the U.S. units were tripwires guaranteeing a U.S. response.

At least that was the geo-political rationale. By 1967, U.S. units in Germany had another, more urgent mission: retrain, reintegrate, and re-socialize the growing number of soldiers fresh from a year of increasing bloodshed in Vietnam where, they were told, U.S. soldiers were fighting to defeat communism and sustain democracy in South Vietnam – and by extension in America even though most U.S. “minority” soldiers had themselves never enjoyed the rights and privileges that were their birthright.

King’s oration at Riverside remains one of his most holistic presentations. Its core is the absolute, total, unequivocal, and complete rejection of the presumption that, in time of war, there is only one “patriotism” – that of the “warhawks” – and those unable to accept the utility of war as national policy are constrained by their minority position to remain silent.

King does not – indeed as a minister cannot – repudiate the role of silence in religious observances. Indeed, in the Society of Friends, meetings for worship rest on the principle that only in silence can Friends “hear” or otherwise encounter the promptings of the spirit. Thus, for Friends, in the absence of silence, nothing of the spirit may be discerned. Even meetings for business open and close with periods of silence. In Buddhism, the sacred word OHM has four sounds when properly pronounced: “O,” “AU,” “UM,” and the Silence that follows.

The silence that Dr. King rejects is the refusal of community and religious leaders to speak out against policies, programs, and events that diminish rather than increase the human and materiel resources that the state can expend to reduce poverty and other social injustices. Clearly, at the top of his concerns are the activities conducive to war and the preparations for war. As hard as it may be in the face of rampant jingoism, war-fever, or the fear induced in the public of new calamities striking unless the government is given a free hand, religious and political leaders are obliged to hold their ground – but not their voices – when government adopts policies that, individually or collectively, demean those in need.

Writing in Counterpunch April 2, Bernard Chazelle suggests that a creed or ideology has two functions: feeding the soul and serving as a guide when hard decisions need to be made. I see the silence that Dr. King rejects as the “smooth patriotism” that stays safely in port rather than sail before the wind. If none object, all might find that the policy (the port) is more dangerous (e.g., the “wind” turns into a hurricane) than the open sea.

The irony in all this lies in the public’s belief that in the long term the choices made by government are rational, reasonable, and pragmatic. In Dr. King’s era, the war was one into which the country stumbled in silence. The current war does not even have this to excuse it – only an inappropriate silence.

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