By Michael Nagler
He came out against the war. Against all advice.
In his famous speech opposing the Vietnam War at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King announced to the world his departure, or rather expansion, of his role as civil rights leader to that of a prophet warning “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, my own government,” that they had put themselves on a course “approaching spiritual death.” Just as Gandhi honed his nonviolence in South Africa and then felt that he was ready to carry the struggle into the heart of the empire, King here announced that he had enlarged his passion from those of his own race in one region of the country to the policies of that country itself. And just as Gandhi knew that his real target was larger still, that in offering “an ocular demonstration” of the power of nonviolence he was really offering humanity a way out of its turmoil and suffering, I will argue that no less was true for King. In the Riverside speech he said:
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. 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 of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and 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.
A recent commentator has pointed out that four things right now are degrading our image in the world: Donald Trump (and the fact that people take his candidacy seriously), our heavily armed—and sometimes shooting–presence in more than 100 sovereign nations, police abuses of power, and guns. Are they not all symptoms of the “madness” that lay, and still does, behind King’s use of the term to refer to the most glaring symptom of his day, the Vietnam War?
The term “perennial philosophy” (from the older Latin version, philosophia perennis) was popularized by Aldous Huxley to refer to a perennial strand that runs through the theology, and later the worldview generally, of virtually all known civilizations. The term that’s most commonly used today, coined in 1978 by Thomas Berry, is the “New Story.” Somewhat misleading (since it’s far from new), but useful enough: this “story” holds that life is sacred, that we are put on this planet for a sublime purpose – namely to realize that sacredness and live up to it – toward which we are moving more or less consciously and more or less erratically. When a people loses sight of this high purpose it drifts off the path to that extent, and can veer towards the “spiritual death” of which King spoke.
Today in particular we have drifted dangerously far indeed, and because we have for the first time the raw power to destroy life on Planet Earth the return to perennial truth could not possibly be more urgent. King, like Gandhi, was fully aware that ultimately he was engaged in this very struggle. Let me cite just three elements of his vision that show this, starting from his own words:
- We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” civilization to a “person oriented” civilization. The rediscovery of the path is always a rediscovery of our selves, of our true nature. It means, among other things, a rediscovery that we have resources within us that make it quite unnecessary for anyone or any civilization to exploit the Earth – or one another.
- I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be; and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. Our true relationship to one another is not competition, but completion. We need each other. The organizing principle of human life is neither uniformity nor separateness, but unity-in-diversity.
- Man must evolve for all human conflict a method that rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love, Nonviolence (aka love in action) is as at home in the ‘New Story’ as violence was in the one where we now find ourselves. I would go further: nonviolence is essential to the contemporary recovery of the perennial philosophy, as violence became inevitable when we drifted away from it.
It is because we did not follow King that far that we are losing ground even in the particular area where many did follow him, the delegitimization of racism. This shows us exactly what we must do: learn and institutionalize nonviolence in its full bearing, including its setting in the worldview of connection and complementarity. Fortunately, this is happening, here and there, and slowly increasing. We do not have to invent it out of whole cloth; but we do have to get behind it with our individual drive and talents and together make it the contribution of our age.Φ
Michael N. Nagler writes for PeaceVoice, is Professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and is author of The Nonviolence Handbook and The Search for a Nonviolent Future.