Every year, on this state-sanctioned day of reflection, we memorialize the Martin Luther King who was a peacemaker, a conciliator, a lover and not a hater. In reality, however, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was the master of the thunderous cadences of righteous rage.
King preached nonviolence, he lived nonviolence. He had no illusions about the “valley filled with the misguided bloodthirsty mobs.” He agreed with Langston Hughes: “O, yes, I say it plain/America never was America to me,/And yet I swear this oath – /America will be!” Martin Luther King taught that nonviolence is the most powerful weapon we have to transform the world. Because the world is not only created by those with the guns and the truncheons.
As a Jew celebrating the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a quote from the sixth-century Babylonian Talmud comes to mind: “Any Sage who is not vengeful or does not hold a grudge is not a Sage.” (Yoma 22b-23a)
“But wait!” you might object, “Doesn’t Torah say ‘You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not harbor a grudge?!’” This is true. However, the Talmud is teaching us that there is an obligation and a place for righteous rage. The mishnaic Hebrew word for righteous rage is tar’omet, which has the same root as thunder. The rabbi who witnesses an injustice and does not burn with righteous rage is not a rabbi. The rabbi who does not carry the memory of unjust treatment, and does not rage against it is not a rabbi.
In his speech “Beyond Vietnam,” King said:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look easily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.”
The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands 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 peoples 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.