In the wake of an incredibly divisive United States presidential campaign there has been a lot of talk on the importance of unity. While some think the path to unity is paved with compromise,others think losers need only move aside for prevailing forces to take their turn. With an increased polarization of thought as to what the ‘solutions’ are, we risk losing sight of the problems altogether; and with rapid shifting of party values and identity politics, many Catholics are left wondering where they fit in. Many have hitched to the Republican Party line firmly convicted that it alone respects the sanctity of life in the womb and a persistent belief in ‘ethical capitalism.’ Others recognize the many ways in which life is attacked outside the womb and see the Democratic Party standing up against the death penalty and for the welfare of the poor. 

This April will mark 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom we celebrate today, gave a speech at Riverside Church in New York City entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” No stranger to division, the deeply controversial preacher and Civil Rights Activist spoke on one great fissure of his time, the war in Vietnam and its consequences for the trajectory of American Values. Having received the Nobel Peace prize in 1964, Dr. King described responding to what he felt as a “commission to work harder than ever for ‘the brotherhood of man’ … beyond national allegiances.” Even absent this commission he viewed the “making of peace” as intrinsically connected to “the ministry of Jesus Christ.” While Catholics flounder in their search for truth in a society that demands us to choose one side or the other, Dr. King’s words offer a third way of true unity brought about by a revolution of values waiting for a people to take up the cause. 

A brotherhood of man

The great American journalist Sydney J. Harris wrote, “The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does.” Dr. King encouraged his listeners to reject this nationalism in favor of, “the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.” It is clear that this speech, though a scathing critique of the Vietnam War, is propelled by an implicit concern for his country. Many times throughout the address he points out not only the moral but strategic issues with America’s conduct in the Vietnam conflict. He quotes one Vietnamese Buddhist leader: “It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully 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.” 

Far from short-sighted, Dr. King recognized that “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American Spirit. We will be marching for these and a dozen other [conflicts] and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.” He knew that what was then fear of communism, would become fear of something else. 

In our time, the fear of terrorism and economic crisis fuels isolationism around the world. In the last year alone Great Britain voted to leave the EU, a recent referendum in Italy signaled a rejection of globalism, Marine Le Pen and her populist party in France have risen in popularity, and the election of Donald Trump endorses his “America First” foreign policy and criticism of NATO. Countries are returning to a posture of fear, receding into themselves. Dr. King would reject this posture on moral and practical grounds: “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.”

Above all practical concerns, King stood for a higher truth which should challenge those of us ensnared into thinking the pursuit of American interests precludes us from our prophetic mission as Christians:

“Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men—for communist and capitalist, 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 the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?”

The hypocrisy of violence

Dr. King faced fierce resistance not only from a status quo government and overt white supremacy but also from those who considered the notion of peace diametrically opposed to the fight for civil rights. King saw above the violence in Georgia and East Harlem to the impact of war on his community and the soul of his country. He speaks at length about the motives for foreign conflict codified by the wealthy and powerful as they wage war, exporting the violence against black and poor communities to Southeast Asia: 

“This way of settling difference 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 veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged.”

King consistently challenged his followers with the conviction that “social change comes most meaningfully though non-violent action.” He faced those same followers who asked if their own nation” wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems.”  King heard the complaint of these young men segregated in their own neighborhoods and then sent to burn villages and kill children together: “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.” Recognizing that the horrors of wars like the violence in his own community “cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love,” King sought a new way, clearing his own path of discourse with the passion and values of a “son of the living God.” He did not meet his adversary on the battlefield of hate but identified his foe as hate itself and proclaimed peace as a prerequisite to justice. 

In 2013 Pope Francis criticized the narrow focus of the modern church on abortion, gay marriage and contraception commenting that, “We have to find a new balance, otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.” Part of the reason abortion has remained such a fixture in the national debate is it has found a place within the structure perpetuating conservative/ liberal polarization. To find the “balance” Pope Francis calls for we have to develop a consistently wider lens of the history and of the world, even if that means turning that lens toward our own country.

Forty-three years after Dr. King’s speech on Vietnam and after nine years of fighting in Afghanistan five U.S. soldiers were charged with the murders of three Afghan civilians after collecting their body parts as trophies (see Maywand District Murders). With tens of thousands of civilians killed in Afghanistan by 2011 a vision of peace has yet to be realized. By 2013 the United States, with less than five percent of the world’s population, houses almost a quarter of its prisoners. In 2015 nearly one-thousand civilians are fatally shot by police, ten percent are unarmed. In 2016 Texas and Georgia each execute seven securely guarded inmates (setting a record for most executions in one year in the state of Georgia). Over 100 Syrian civilians have been killed by US airstrikes in a conflict that shows no signs of abating in duration or cruelty. Legislation has passed in six states allowing physician assisted suicide, already disincentivizing insurance companies’ coverage of actual treatment in favor of cheaper suicide pills (See the story of Stephanie Packer). 

Whether by overexposure or lack of information we have been desensitized to the violence of our own Nation. In fact, we sanction it. First by our inaction and silence and second by our selective outrage. The conservative is repulsed by abortion, the liberal by the death penalty. The black family is increasingly afraid of their own law enforcement, the police feel threatened by protesters. A fundamental human chord has been struck and yet we cannot see the common thread of violence and rally against it. 

America first- a call for a true revolution of values

If we do not reevaluate our values under the guidance of the Church then we leave ourselves opened to be formed by figures of power and fame. Without action we leave the government open to be formed with an arbitrary and false morality.  A government that believes that the ends justify violent means will never be representative of a Catholic American Ethic. Even if it defends the interests of the people, in doing so, it will betray their values. We will engage in wars like Vietnam and Iraq and defend inaction in the face of ethnic cleansing like in Rwanda. If we continue to depend upon politicians and legislation to right the trajectory of this culture we will continue to lose the fight for life and the quest for souls. Former U.S. Congressman Ron Paul gets at the problem in this way:

“Only the adoption of a different set of ideas has the ability to turn around a culture of violence and victimization. If you and I are not allowed to rob our neighbor, the government should not be allowed to do it either. If you and I are not allowed to use aggressive force against our fellow man, neither should the government be granted immunity either.” 

A true unity of Nation, and certainly of mankind, is not mutually exclusive of accountability to these values. We can support the troops and oppose the war. We can support law enforcement while calling for vigilant oversight. We can love our country for the privileges it affords us while challenging it to lead in what Dr. King called “a revolution of values.”

In many ways Dr. King’s prophetic words have fallen on deaf ears. The time he speaks of- “when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people-” is indeed here, and “the giants of racism, materialism and militarism” continually reawaken like destructive titans.  We must consider the totality of Christian moral principles. We can no longer remain comfortable in luxury while our brothers languish in the street. We can no longer use fear as an excuse to murder young black men and wage war with disregard toward innocent life.

Our democracy and our Church demand that we look critically on the actions of our nation, regardless of the privileges it has afforded us. Otherwise we will be counted among those Dr. King warned “possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”  As a people blessed with grace and privilege, Catholic Americans must lead in this true revolution of values. Let us hold all our leaders accountable for their every word and deed. Let us heed the call “for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation, a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.” 

I encourage you to read the full text of Dr. King's speech, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence."

Anthony Esser is recently married and lives in Southern Maryland with his wife, Casey. He serves as Assistant Manager to the Bookstore at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception where he has worked for over two years. He considers himself an artist, a wannabe chef and a sometimes stand­ up comic.