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Will We Speak?

The Members of the U.S. House of Representatives read the U.S. Constitution aloud on the House floor last week, a public liturgy inspired by and pandering to the Tea Party crowd who would have us believe that this founding document is under assault by those who would expand health care to the not-wealthy, seek to honor religious pluralism, and attempt to restrict the number of guns available to kill children on the streets of our cities.  Perhaps next week John Boehner, in a reprise of Glenn Beck’s rally at the Lincoln Memorial last summer, will lead a public recitation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.

Given the agonizing and endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, King’s memory would be better served, and more usefully invoked, by a public reading of his address at the Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, in which he delivered a blistering critique of the War in Vietnam.  We and our members of Congress would be well served – if we listened – to King’s words:  “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 Vietnam.”

That almost forgotten war has now been replaced by two very present wars and I daresay America’s soul has been profoundly poisoned by both.  An argument can be made for the necessity of military action in Afghanistan following the attacks of September 11 in order to restrain terrorism in one of its strongholds, though the surging growth of that war into a looming regional catastrophe hardly prompts confidence that the political ends will ever justify the military means. But there was and is little moral or political justification for a war built on weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be little more than words of mass deception.  The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Blair alliance remains unrepentant – regretful, if at all, that the war was mishandled, but confident that the bloodbaths, the torture, the degrading of America’s prestige in the Arab and Muslim worlds, the encouragement of Iranian and Pakistani mischief and the deferring of Palestinian aspirations were somehow all worth it in the end.

King’s tears over the nightmare of America’s folly would be far more poignant than John Boehner’s tears for his American dream.  But I suspect King would reserve his sharpest words for the churches which have largely proved themselves to be impotent and then resigned in the face of the decade’s deep moral tragedy.  My generation of American church leaders stands indicted for our profound failure to courageously and creatively generate resistance in our communities of faith to the poison that has coursed through our nation’s body politic.  We wrote letters, we signed statements, we prayed, and some of us – really only a few – marched and spoke.  But in the face of mixed signals from the pews our resolve wilted and we easily grew distracted by financial stress, declining membership, endless debates over sexuality, a great recession, our own ambivalence, and all manner of other lesser things.  Harry Emerson Fosdick, who long occupied the pulpit from which King spoke that night in 1967, speaks for many of us:  “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.”  Lord, have mercy!

The poisoning of our soul may not be obvious or immediately debilitating.  We grow accustomed to the burials, to the regular bomb blasts, and to the anguish of those who cannot ignore what they have lost.  But there is poison, and the whirlwinds we have sowed must one day be reaped.  Forty-four years ago King told us that “we are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly.”  He called for far more than an end to the War in Vietnam, indeed, for a revolution of values and a reordering of priorities in which America must lead lest it surrender to a “tragic death wish.”  This is the address I’d like to hear recited on the floor of Congress, not some bizarre recitation of self-indulgent dreams inspired by a modern day band of men in tri-cornered hats and women blasting away at wildlife in the northern woods.

But I doubt we’ll hear this speech in Congress, not even on Martin Luther King’s birthday.  It is, instead, a speech for or pulpits, if we dare, a speech that might just redeem our churches from a decade of disgrace in the great moral struggle to which we hardly showed up.  That night in New York King said,

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. . . , for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.

Will we speak?

John H. Thomas

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