Editor’s Note: We at Tikkun have always felt deep respect for Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s important work and brilliant insights as one of America’s most creative Jewish thinkers. So we and the Network of Spiritual Progressives enthusiastically endorse his call for a Jubilee Year of Truth and Transformation beginning on April 4th, the 50th anniversary of King’s murder in 1968. May nonviolence and love conquer hate and violence. — Rabbi Michael Lerner
April 4, 2018, will be the 50th anniversary of the death — the murder — of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
April 4, 2017 will be the 50th anniversary of his prophetic sermon “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” to Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, at Riverside Church in New York. There he warned us of the “deadly triplets” of racism, militarism, and materialism that were endangering America. (And still are.)
In May 2016, The Shalom Center began exploring a proposal to make the year from April 4, 2017, to April 4, 2018, an American Jubilee Year of Truth and Transformation — through action as well as emotional and spiritual reflection and repentance.
We intend to make it a year for renewing the struggle to end the malignant impact of racism, militarism, and materialism and to move toward what Dr. King called the Beloved Community.
The murder of Dr. King crystallized in one moment a thread of violent American history: slavery, genocide, imperial wars, lynchings, lethal attacks by public and private police on labor unions and strikers, and untrammeled gun violence.
Americans have never collectively and at a spiritual level faced this part of our history, seen it as a continuing self-inflicted wound, done penance for it, and committed ourselves to work against it in all its manifestations.
The Shalom Center ‘s explorations pointed out that it is very likely that the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death will evoke many commemorations. But it is also likely that much of the mass media would prefer to commemorate a vanilla-washed version of him that starts and ends with the “I Have a Dream” speech.
If activists around the country were to take the initiative to use Dr. King’s Riverside prophetic sermon “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” as the beginning point a year before, it would be far more likely that the year would address Dr. King in his fullness and his focus on the root causes of American dysfunction. Not only would that be a more truthful portrayal of Dr. King’s growth from 1963 to 1968, it would also more accurately describe the deep roots of the crisis of democracy gripping the United States 50 years after his sermon and his death.
After the 2016 Presidential election and the emergence of the most anti-democratic US government since the pro-slavery Presidents of the 1850s, interest in this effort quickened. The Shalom Center, working with a number of people and organizations, with the support of a grant from the Ben and Jerry’s Foundation, came together to open a new Website, <MKL50.org> to make many facets of Dr. King’s most profound, prophetic, and provocative sermon available.
What are the main features of an emerging plan for the Year of Truth and Transformation?
To begin the year: In early April — perhaps the weekend of Friday March 31 to Sunday April 2, or on April 4 itself — everywhere in the US churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, libraries, colleges, labor unions, workplaces, and other community organizations hold readings or video-viewings of Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” sermon.
At the heart of his speech were these words:
“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. 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, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
(Dr. King at the microphone at Riverside Church, April 4, 1967. Nearby are Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and a leading historian, Henry Steele Commager)
In some cities, there might be gatherings of “Clergy and Laity Concerned About America,” echoing the “Clergy And Laity Concerned About Vietnam” whom Dr. King was addressing in 1967.
In that sermon, King named the racism, militarism, and materialism that haunted and endangered America then – and still. Today, we might sadly add a fourth, sexism — making deadly “quadruplets” afflicting America.
- The racism he warned against has made the criminal “justice” system into a machine for repressing Black, Latino, and Native communities; has made the burning of fossil fuels a tool for spewing poison into the air and water in neighborhoods of color; has made voting laws into tools of suppressing Black and Latino voters; and has made Muslims and Latinos into objects of hate.
- The “materialism” he challenged encompasses three triplets of its own: the despiritualization of society; the greedy treatment of Earth as an abusable commodity that through global scorching now threatens the whole web of life on Planet Earth; worsening inequality of wealth and income into hyper-wealth and broader, deeper poverty – a combination that deeply wounds democracy itself and corrupts our elections and political system.
- Today we face militarism not only in an endless war of the kind that Dr. King denounced but the militarization of many urban police forces and a quasi-military system of mass incarceration. And we face the emergence of major political leaders and followers with a strong stink of fascism in their policies, their language, and their actions.
In response to this worsening violence carried out and encouraged by those now in power, we are also witnessing the revival of vandalism and violence carried out by some alleged “progressives” who, wearing masks, smash store windows in the midst of otherwise nonviolent demonstrations and acts of civil resistance.
Leaving aside the possibility that among these masked vandals are provocateurs hired by the government to discredit progressive activism, it is possible to feel emotional empathy with the anger that infuses these attacks. But in our own generation, it is important to notice how Dr. King’s vigorous opposition to racial and economic injustice and to the Vietnam War was rooted in his profound commitment to nonviolence at spiritual, strategic, and tactical levels.
- Beyond the “triplets” that Dr. King named, today we face a wave of fear and hostility toward women who are independent-minded, who demand the right to equality at work and at home, who reject being sexually coerced or abused, who demand the right to choose whether, when, and how to mother children; and a wave of hostility toward those who express their sexual and gender identities in “unconventional” ways. So today we might speak of deadly “quadruplets” endangering America.
In order to encourage and enliven a Year of Truth and Transformation, there is now available a website, <MLK50.org> that includes commentaries on the ”Beyond Vietnam” sermon, reports of planned actions, with artwork and music evocative of King’s teachings. This website can help spark and plan continuing actions, in the spirit of Dr. King’s Riverside “Beyond Vietnam” sermon and of his actions against racism and war, his strong support for labor unions of the poor (like the garbage workers of Memphis for whom he died), his effort during his last year to organize a multiracial Poor People’s Campaign, and his commitment to nonviolent resistance.
During the entire year, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other community-rooted groups around the country would make the following a constant effort:
- Arrange study groups and teach-ins to examine Dr. King’s Riverside speech and other inspired and inspiring documents like Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, and in the study process to explore how to address the issues raised there.
- Hold monthly religious services (and perhaps monthly fasts) aiming at the religious and spiritual transformation of America beyond racism, militarism, materialism, and sexism.
- Organize nonviolent direct action of three basic types: teach-ins or freedom schools; actions that directly challenge centers of egregious violence and oppression; and grassroots models that actually embody in the living present our vision of the kinds of future institutions (such as neighborhood solar-energy co-ops, neighborhood cultural festivals, credit unions, food co-ops, etc.) that Dr. King called the Beloved Community.
It is already clear that during the year ahead, there will continue to be an outpouring of opposition, resistance, and the deeply democratic creation of alternative clusters of “beloved communities” — in response to the violently anti-democratic Trump presidency.
The year could end with a National Day of Action, Atonement and At-ONE-ment on April 4, 2018, not only in memory of Dr. King but in emulation of his struggle, this time on a even broader basis.
The day could be marked by special religious services and a myriad actions around the country to move past the “deadly triplets/ quadruplets” of racism, militarism, materialism, and sexism.
For some people, this might be a day of fasting, with or without attendance at religious services. For others, there might be public vigils at places where racism, militarism, materialism, and sexism are most outrageous. There might be mass demonstrations in Washington to call for action against those triplets — now quadruplets. There might be work stoppages, teach-ins, and many other forms of nonviolent transformation.
Making April 4, 2018, into a day of national transformation, a culmination of transformative acts already taken and a springboard for action yet to come, would address the deep crisis of American democracy