Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Dreams

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It is not only because I am a sentimental old fool that I get a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes every time I hear Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a dream” speech. The speech brought me to tears even when I first heard it as a young man of eighteen on August 28, 1963. It is a speech I never tire of hearing. My only mild complaint about that particular speech is that it has overshadowed dozens of other brilliant speeches that Dr. King delivered. As a pacifist, I have always especially appreciated his powerful critique of American conduct in Vietnam—and of war in general—as a method of solving problems. It always seemed to me that Martin Luther King, Jr presented not only the best of Christianity but the very essence of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

As a pacifist living in a country that has been at war or on the brink of war almost my entire life and in which arguably the most often-heard religious tradition is Christianity, I have long been interested in Christian attitudes toward war. Perhaps the best-known scholastic attempt to arrive at a set of criteria for when conducting a war is within the moral guidelines of the Christian religion is the so-called Just War doctrine of Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. In December 2009 on the PBS News Hour, David Brooks and Mark Shields took a look at President Barack Obama’s speech when he accepted the Nobel Prize for peace. In the context of that discussion, Shields offered a quick summary of Christian Just War doctrine and showed that few of the criteria for just war are met in the current American occupation of Afghanistan. Among the criteria of a just war are the following:

  • “The reason for going to war needs to be just and cannot therefore be solely for recapturing things taken or punishing people who have done wrong; innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be to protect life.” The operations in Iraq obviously failed to meet that criterion, but so do the operations in Afghanistan. The government of Afghanistan does not pose an imminent threat to the United States, nor do the Taliban. While members of al-Qaeda might like to carry out further attacks, it is unlikely that they will be able to do so from Afghanistan. Qaeda is not a nation but a nebulous network of individuals. Fighting such a network with the kind of military equipment and personnel that are usually used when nations fight other nations is doing very little, if anything, to protect anyone from imminent danger.
  • A war is potentially justified according to Christian teachings only if arms are not “used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success.” Presumably the purpose of sending military personnel to Afghanistan in the first place was that it was believed that the masterminds of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 were hiding somewhere in that country. The mission was to find Osama bin Ladin and bring him to justice. Repeatedly during his campaign to be elected president, Barack Obama criticized President Bush for getting distracted from the mission of pursuing Osama bin Ladin. So far, more than 1500 Americans and coalition allies have died, along with several thousand Afghan civilians. It would be hard to argue that the use of tanks, missiles, bombers, fighter bombers and nearly 70,000 troops is proportionate to the needs of bringing a handful of men to justice.
  • “The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms.” It is difficult to quanitfy such things as benefits and harms, especially “expected” as opposed to actual harms. Still, it is difficult to imagine that the amount of benefit could outweigh the loss of life, the destruction of infrastructure, and the enormous monetary cost of waging this war.

President Barack Obama has shown signs of being aware that the way to an African American’s being in the White House was paved by the work of Rev. King and those who marched by his side during the 1960s civil rights campaigns. That President Obama admires the legacy of Rev. King is evident in what he says. It is heartbreaking, therefore, that President Obama does not heed the peaceful Christian message of Rev. King. It is impossible to know for sure what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr would have to say about President Obama’s campaign in Afghanistan. I imagine he may have said something similar to what he said in his famous 1967 speech called Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence:

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 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.

Rev. King went on to say this:

As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, 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.

One can only hope that President Obama is using this national holiday to read and reflect on the speeches that Rev. King delivered on the issues of peace and justice. It is not too late for the president to deliver some of the promised change we can believe in, but time is fast running out. As Bob Dylan said: “It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, January 18, 2010 at 17:05

Posted in Faith and practice

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