Saturday, September 12, 2015

Two visions: Beyond Vietnam, by Martin Luther King, Jr.

(source link -- full transcript available here).

It is safe to say that the size, visibility, and intensity of the protest against the Vietnam War -- not only within the US but worldwide -- dwarfs anything that has developed during the fourteen years of US military action in the Middle East and elsewhere since 2001. 

To say this is not to cast aspersions at those who are raising their voices for peace and against war in the present day -- far from it. It is simply stating an objective fact, impossible to deny, to say that the level of widespread turbulence that rolled through nearly every aspect of society during those years, focused primarily although not exclusively on opposition to that war, was on quite another level than anything seen since then, in terms of opposition to a war or military intervention.

For instance, there are a huge number of popular songs from that period which were seen as anti-war anthems. Just about anyone today, off the top of their head, could easily name one or more of the major antiwar songs from that period (especially if the person you ask is over the age of 40).  On the other hand, trying to name an anti-war song with the same widespread impact from the past fourteen years would be much more challenging.

It is also a nearly undeniable fact that the size, breadth, and intensity of the anti-war sentiment during those years was a major factor in finally bringing about the end of the direct US military involvement in Vietnam. 

image: Vietnam War protest, May 1970 (link).

If someone from 1967 who opposed that conflict were to be transported suddenly to today, he or she might be astonished at the lack of widespread voices for peace and against military intervention and war which continues with an intensity and level of destruction of human life that is as horrible as that which took place in that now-bygone decade.

The protests and outrage seem to have drained away between that era and this.

And yet many of the circumstances and US policy actions which led to the widespread moral outrage voiced from so many different outlets and from men and women of so many different walks of life during the 1960s and early 1970s can be applied directly to events taking place at home and abroad today.

In fact, when one reads the statements from some of the leading voices against the war from that time, such those delivered with such power by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in the speech above, from 1967, it feels as though they are talking directly to us today, and describing circumstances and actions and situations all too familiar.

For example, consider the following hard-hitting arguments found in the extended quotation from the speech below. Note first that one need not simply "read" the quotation -- you can actually hear Martin Luther King delivering them himself, in a recording made on the day he gave this speech in New York City, on April 4, 1967 -- exactly one year before the day he was murdered.

Most people have heard at least parts of his famous I Have a Dream speech. However, it is incredibly sad but true that far fewer have heard this speech, entitled Beyond Vietnam, at all -- let alone in its entirety. And yet, as Dr. King himself makes abundantly clear throughout this speech, he saw the issues he was speaking against with regard to the Vietnam War as stretching beyond Vietnam, and as related to all the other issues which he addressed and for which he is so well known.

They go so far beyond Vietnam that they apply very distinctly to this day and age in which we now find ourselves living.

The entire speech deserves to be heard in order to feel the full force of Dr. King's moral clarity, as well as to see the full scope of his carefully-developed argument.

If you have never listened to that speech which Martin Luther King gave on that day, I urge you to listen to it in its entirety. The full text and a link to the audio can be found here (and other speeches by Dr. King are available at that same site, in a list found here).

You can also find it in the form of a file (options here) that could be downloaded to a portable device or onto a CD, in order to listen to it while driving, and by hearing it more than once gain a greater appreciation for the connections he is pointing out.

Lest some mistakenly protest that by speaking against the US war in Vietnam, Dr. King was displaying a lack of concern for the people of Vietnam, who had experienced severe oppression and brutalization under corrupt and criminal leaders, or for the "troops" -- the masses of largely conscripted draftees sent from the US and other countries to fight in Vietnam -- please consider carefully the following extended quotation from Dr. King's speech that day:

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: "Vietnam." It can never be saved so long as it destroys the hopes of men the world over. So 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.
[. . .]
And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta of Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost 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.
They must see Americans as strange liberators. [. . .] Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They known they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs. 
So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. [. . .]
We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation's only noncommunist revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and killed their men. [. . .]
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called "enemy," I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam 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 process of death, for they must know after a short period that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.
Surely this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. 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 in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and dealt death and corruption in Vietnam. 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 our own nation: Thegreat initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.
This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words, and I quote:
"Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the hearts of the Vietnamese 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." Unquote.
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 Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, 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 we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply form our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, 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 to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:
Number one: End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.
Number two: Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
Three: Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.
Four: Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and any future Vietnam government.
Five: Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement.
Part of our ongoing -- [applause continues] -- part of our ongoing commitment might well express itself in an offer to grant asylum to any Vietnamese who fears for his life under a new regime which included the Liberation Front. Then we must make what reparations we can for the damage we have done. We must provide the medical aid that is badly needed, making it available in this country if necessary.  Meanwhile -- [applause] -- 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 and our lives if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative method of protest possible.
As we counsel young men concerning military service, we must clarify for them our nation's role in Vietnam and challenge them with the alternative of conscientious objection. I am pleased to say that this is a path now chosen by more than seventy students at my own alma mater, Morehouse College, and I recommend it to all who find the American course in Vietnam a dishonorable and unjust one. Moreover, I would encourage all ministers of draft age to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as conscientious objectors. These are 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.
Now there is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter that struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing.
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality -- 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 Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. 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. So such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
[. . .]
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 people 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.
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.
[. . .]
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.
[. . .]
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.
Now, some readers may be wondering what yesterday's post and today's topic, as important as they are, have to do with the subject of ancient wisdom and the analysis of the sacred myths, traditions, and scriptures of humanity.

Let me take a moment to clarify the connection.

First, it is quite evident from Dr. King's speech that he was in large part motivated, moved, and compelled to take the stand that he took from his correct reading of the true message of the ancient wisdom of humanity, preserved in the scriptures of the human race.

I believe that a central message in the ancient myths, scriptures and sacred traditions (which we can refer to as the "ancient wisdom" for the sake of brevity) entrusted to the human race is the message that each individual man, woman and child is not just a physical, material, "animal" being but instead is a spiritual, invisible, immaterial, and in fact divine nature which is "crossed" with a physical and material component during this incarnate life.

That this invisible and spiritual component in each individual man, woman and child is in fact infinite in nature and reflects and resonates with the entire infinite cosmos -- a concept expressed in the principle of "as above, so below" and in many other allegorical ways that the ancient wisdom traditions use to try to convey this truth to us.

As such, each and every individual man, woman and child has inherent and inalienable dignity and inherent and inalienable rights, and that violence against the person or the dignity and rights of any individual man, woman or child is a crime against the entire balance of the universe, and is in fact a crime of infinite proportion (because the invisible and spiritual component in each person is infinite in nature, reflecting the infinite universe around and within him or her).

This message is so clearly present in the ancient myths that it hardly bears debate or discussion -- although it is true that mistaken and especially literalistic misinterpretation of the ancient wisdom of humanity can lead some to obscure, miss, or even totally invert that message (see for example previous discussions here, here, here and here).

I believe it can also be shown that another very central (and closely related) message in the collective body of scriptures, traditions and myths containing this ancient wisdom is the admonition to do what is right, without attachment to the consequences of doing what is right. 

This aspect is of course related to the first aspect, in that doing what is right generally involves upholding and enhancing the dignity of others, working towards the elevation and acknowledgement of the spiritual aspect within ourselves and others and indeed in the rest of creation around us -- and simultaneously working against that which tends to degrade or deny or beat down the spiritual aspect and to "reduce to the physical" or "reduce to the animal" in ourselves and in others and indeed in the rest of creation around us.

This can also be expressed as blessing rather than cursing (a theme which is powerfully evident throughout the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as well as throughout other containers of humanity's ancient wisdom found literally around the world).

The central message of doing what is right, without regard for the outcome can be found at the heart of the Bhagavad Gita, for example, where the Lord Krishna begins an extended teaching to Arjuna in chapter 6 with the words: 

anasritah karma-phalam karyam karma karoti
yah sa sannyasi ca yogi ca na niragnir na cakriyah. 

Which the translation found on this website indicates to mean (I paraphrase):

without expectation of the result of the actions
enacting obligatory prescribed actions
that one is truly a yogi
not one without prescribed duties (i.e. the definition of a yogi is not to be misunderstood to mean "one without prescribed duties")
nor one who merely follows the ascetic path of renunciation.

In other words, the path of ancient wisdom was not meant to be misunderstood as teaching "non-action" or abdication of one's duty and obligation towards the cosmos and other creatures and other human beings -- far from it.

The paradox of "non action" means "acting as if not acting" -- that is, as if completely unattached to the outcome in terms of "fear of consequences" or "hope for reward."

That is: Acting with the calm tranquility of one who is not acting.

Not "not acting at all," but rather "acting with the calmness of one who is not even doing it."

Krishna spends much time elucidating this concept of "acting without acting" in the Gita, and the Tao Te Ching dwells upon the same message as well, using closely-related language and closely-related imagery, as explored by Professor Victor Mair in the afterword to his translation of the Tao Te Ching (an afterword which all by itself is worth more than the price of the book, even without counting the tremendous value of Professor Mair's translation of the Tao Te Ching, which of course is priceless).

Which brings us to the conclusion that the ancient wisdom imparted to humanity teaches us that we have a duty to do what is right, and teaches us to do that "without expectation of the result," or "without attachment to the result."

In that famous speech delivered in Riverside Church in New York City, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated a powerful message against the US war in Vietnam, and expanded that message to extend "beyond Vietnam" -- to encompass a duty to stand against brutalization and violence in other spheres of life including at home.

During that speech, he expressed the fact that he felt a duty to speak out about what he was seeing -- even while acknowledging that the issues were perplexing in their complexity, and that "the ambiguity of the total situation" and our own "limited vision" as human beings often brings us to "the verge of being mesmerized with uncertainty." He admits how difficult it is to move "against all the apathy of conformist thought within in one's own bosom and in the surrounding world" (and note that the Bhagavad Gita also portrays Arjuna as filled with doubt, mesmerized with uncertainty, acknowledging the doubts within his own bosom -- and it is here that Krishna meets him and explains to him about doing what is right regardless of and without attachment to the result).

And in that speech Martin Luther King also states quite explicitly what moves him to speak and act against the institutionalized violence and oppression he saw taking place, even in spite of all the internal resistance of doubt within his own bosom and in spite of all the external doubts expressed by others around him -- and he states quite clearly that it was the message he received from the ancient scriptures contained in the Bible, and the change that message had awakened in him, and the relationship he had with those teachings and with the personal divine force he encountered through them, that caused him to speak and to act, even in spite of all the misgivings from within and without him, as best as he could see  to do from one day to the next.

And, to conclude (although much more could be said), Dr. King explicitly articulated the theme of the "Two Visions" which has been the subject of many previous posts. That is to say, the two different views of the world which come from the realization that we already have an internal connection to divinity, and thus everything that we truly need -- and the vision that comes from the loss of that knowledge, characterized by a chasing after of external substitutes, none of which can ever satisfy.

In the same speech cited above, Dr. King says:

We must rapidly begin, 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.

This important speech, and Dr. King's genius in writing it and his courage in saying it, remain as relevant today as when it was first delivered -- or more relevant.

It is up to us to consider his words and the path we want to pursue.

image: Wikipedia (link).

Linked here are instructions on registering for the draft in the US, with conscientious objector status.