Fifty-four years ago, standing at the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now-famous “Beyond Vietnam” sermon. For the first time in public, he expressed in vehement terms his opposition to the American war in Vietnam. He saw clearly that a foreign policy defined by aggression hurt the poor and dispossessed across the planet. But it did more than that. It also drained this country of its moral vitality and the financial resources needed to fight poverty at home. On that early spring day, exactly one year before his assassination in 1968, King warned that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” a statement that should ring some bells in April 2021.
In his sermon, King openly wrestled with a thorny problem: how to advance nonviolent struggle among a generation of Black youth whose government had delivered little but pain and empty promises. He told the parishioners of Riverside Church that his years of work, both in the South and the North, had opened his eyes to why, as a practitioner of nonviolence, he had to speak out against violence everywhere—not just in the United States—if he expected people to take him at his word. As he explained that day:
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems.… But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.
In 2020, the planet was swept up in a devastating pandemic. Millions died; tens of millions suffered. It was a moment, in King’s spirit, that would have been ideal for imagining new global approaches to America’s ongoing wars of the past century. It would similarly have been the perfect moment to begin imagining global cooperative approaches to public health, growing debt and desperation, and intellectual property rights. This especially given that the Covid-19 vaccines had been patented for mega-profits and were available only to some on this suffering planet of ours, a world vulnerable to a common enemy in which the fault lines in any country threaten the safety of many others.
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Internationally, at the worst moment imaginable, US-backed institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund continued to demand billions of dollars in debt payments from impoverished countries in the Global South, forgiving debt only when their governments fell into step behind the United States and Europe, as Sudan has recently done. Moreover, Washington had a golden opportunity when the search for a Covid-19 vaccine threatened to change patent laws and force pharmaceutical companies to work with low-income nations. Instead, the US government backed exclusive deals with Big Pharma, ensuring that vaccine apartheid would become rampant in this country, as well as across the rest of the world. By late March, 90 percent of the nearly 400 million vaccines delivered had gone to people in wealthy or middle-income countries, with vaccine equity within those countries being a concern as well.
Another menacing development is the thematically anti-Chinese legislation being developed in Congress right now. Three weeks ago, just as the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was nearly across the finish line, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer was quietly laying the groundwork for another major legislative package focused on further inflaming a rising cold war with China. For Republicans, legislative action on China is in theory an absolute bull’s-eye, but Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has already made it clear that his support for Schumer’s bill will come only if it includes a large increase—once again—in “defense” spending.
The timing and tenor of this debate, steeped as it is in Sinophobia, economic brinkmanship, and military hawkishness, is more than troublesome. Just a few weeks ago, eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were gunned down in Atlanta by a man plagued by his own toxic mix of religious extremism, white supremacy, and sexism. This followed a year in which there were close to 4,000 documented anti-Asian hate incidents in this country, fueled by a president who blamed the Chinese for Covid-19 and regularly used racist nicknames for the pandemic like the “Chinese virus” and the “kung flu.”
In addition, an aggressive and potentially militarized anti-China bill is irresponsible when tens of thousands continue to contract the virus daily here at home and we are only beginning to understand the long-term economic consequences of the pandemic. At a time when there are 140 million poor or low-income people in this country, a fully revived and funded war not against China but against poverty should be seen as both a moral responsibility and a material necessity. At least poverty now seems to be getting some attention in the pandemic era, but how sad that it took the disastrous toll of Covid-19 on American jobs, housing, and nutrition to put poverty on the national agenda. Now that it’s there, though, we can’t allow it to be sidelined by shortsighted preparations for a new cold war that could get hot.
An inhumane approach to foreign policy and especially wars in distant lands was only half of the spiritual death that King warned about back in 1967: the other half was how the militarization of this society and a distortion of its moral priorities had brought war and immiseration home. That was what he meant in his sermon when spoke about the “cruel manipulation of the poor.”
In 1967, King saw how American soldiers were fighting in Vietnam “on the side of the wealthy and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.” That hell was being created both in the Agent Orange–saturated lands of Vietnam and Laos and, in a different fashion, in so many poor and abandoned communities in the United States.
King mourned the “brutal solidarity” of disproportionately poor Black, brown, and white Americans fighting together against the poor in Vietnam, only to return to a nation parts of which were still committed to inequality, discrimination, and racism (despite the struggle and advances of the civil rights movement) and remarkably blind to their suffering. In those last years of the 1960s, he watched as the promise of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was betrayed by massive investments in what President Dwight D. Eisenhower had first dubbed a “military-industrial complex,” and in a reactionary narrative, which would only become more emboldened in the years to come, that blamed the poor for their poverty.
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Sadly, the decades to follow would, in so many ways, affirm his fears. And yet—to note a spark of hope amid the pandemic gloom—the last year has finally awakened an earnest concern on the part of some in the government to revive the spiritual health of the nation by committing in significant ways to the material health of the poor.
Indeed, ARPA’s investments in poor and low-income communities should be celebrated, but the question remains: Why is the Biden administration’s Covid-19 legislation so historic and rare? Why is it so unprecedented for the United States to invest $1.9 trillion in our own people in a country that, in these last years, has squandered 53 percent of every federal discretionary dollar on the Pentagon? How is it that we’ve become so steeped in a militarized economy that we don’t bat an eye when politicians propose more funding for the military, even as they say spending on human welfare is irresponsible and unaffordable?
In the lead-up to the passage of ARPA, stalwart old-guard Republicans attacked the legislation. In an op-ed for National Review, Senator Marco Rubio denounced increased welfare spending as “not pro-family” and repeated the tired myth that welfare, by supposedly creating dependency, actually breaks up the nuclear family. So immersed was Rubio in his disdain for the poor that he punctuated his piece with this nonsensical claim: “If pulling families out of poverty were as simple as handing moms and dads a check, we would have solved poverty a long time ago.” Is it really necessary to affirm in 2021 that more money in people’s pockets actually does mean less poverty?
Meanwhile, longtime senior Democratic economic adviser and former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers argued that the Covid-19 bill was the “least responsible” policy in four decades. He had, of course, long been a champion of the austerity policies that helped lead to enormous increases in inequality and poverty in this country. (Many other economists dispute his claim.) It’s telling, as wel,l that members of the Biden administration have distanced themselves from him.
Pro-austerity and anti-poor economic policies promoted by influential figures like Rubio and Summers are, in part, what’s kept America in a spiritual death spiral since the days of King. A country now constantly haunted by death has long been consumed by violence and crisis. Sometimes, it’s the literal physical violence of another mass shooting, driven by rage, hate, and desperation, or the further militarization of the border, or the use of militarized police violence to clear the most vulnerable from homeless encampments. Other times it’s policy violence, whether involving punitive work requirements for food stamps or the refusal to expand Medicaid and make healthcare available and affordable to all. And always, in the background, as King would certainly have noted if he were giving his sermon today, is the violence of America’s never-ending wars that have eaten so many trillion dollars and killed and displaced so many people in distant lands.
Of particular concern today is the potential death of democracy that the insurrection of January 6 at the Capitol seemed so ominously to signal. I will never forget listening to a long-time organizer in Flint, Mich., explain that “before they took away our water, they had to take away our democracy.”
This was true in the fight for racial justice, welfare, and decent wages during the days of King, and it’s no less true in our many human rights struggles today. After all, since 2020, at least 45 states have introduced voter suppression bills, with the recent one in Georgia being only the most egregious and publicized. Such legislation is being proposed and passed by extremist politicians who understand that limiting access to the ballot through racism and a demonization of the poor is the surest way to prevent real and lasting change.
Immediately after cautioning about the spiritual death of the nation in that classic sermon of his, King made an abrupt and hopeful turn, reminding his audience that a moral revolution of values was urgently needed and that “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.”
As both a preacher and theologian, he was acutely aware of the story of Jesus. After all, King, like the Jesus of the Bible, knew that a transformation of society in the image of peace would involve a full-scale reordering of priorities, dependent on a willingness to reject a politics of death and embrace one of life.
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For that to happen, however, society would need to be flipped right side up and that, in Jesus’s time, in King’s, or in our own, represents a herculean task, one never likely to happen through the goodwill of those in power. It requires the collective efforts of a movement of people committed to saving the heart and soul of their society.
In this moment following Easter Sunday 2021, 53 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, may we listen to his concerns and honor his enduring hopes by committing ourselves to building exactly such a movement here and now.
Rev. Dr. Liz TheoharisThe Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is codirector of the Kairos Center, cofounder of the Poverty Initiative, national codirector of the Poor People's Campaign, and author of Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, and has spent the past two decades working with grassroots organizations across the United States.