On Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday, I found myself in a worship service at Riverside Church in New York City, my skin tingling as I gazed at the pulpit where King delivered his controversial and groundbreaking “Beyond Vietnam” speech in 1967.
Vincent Harding, an African-American Mennonite, was a major influence in what King said that day. While King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” are more famous, “Beyond Vietnam” belongs beside them for what it teaches about the call of Christian witness to national governments — its content, character, context and cost.
First, content. “Beyond Vietnam” was a paradigm shift for King to speak to an international issue. Many supporters begged him not to oppose the war, saying, in his words, “Peace and civil rights don’t mix.” “They do not know the world in which they live,” answered King, removing blinders through careful analysis that was historical, moral and political. He connected the poor of the U.S. to the poor of Vietnam and examined the cost of the war to both. He described how the war revealed the nation’s soul as “poisoned” by the “giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism.” Four years after “I Have a Dream,” King’s understanding of the U.S. had matured from dream to nightmare.
Second, the speech shows how witness to governments is grounded in a transformed character. To speak with courage on behalf of those who suffer outside our borders requires a new identity in Christ, “who loved his enemies so fully he died for them.”
Christ’s disciples, said King, are given “loyalties which . . . go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions.” Politics matters, because politics is a matter of ultimate loyalty and ultimate power, which lie with no nation.
Third, King’s speech teaches us Christian witness to government requires a context. King chose a major public platform in New York City to break silence. Anabaptists may, quite rightly, never be fully at ease putting themselves near places of power. Yet too much distance is dangerous when it comes to political issues with critical moral consequences. Elie Wiesel once said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” King’s speech teaches us how prophetic distance and prophetic presence must be balanced.
Harding’s imprint on “Beyond Vietnam” is of great importance for Anabaptists. At King’s invitation, Harding and his wife, Rosemary, moved to Atlanta in 1960 to set up Mennonite House and join the freedom struggle. King relied on Harding for counsel as the Vietnam War escalated, eventually asking him to draft “Beyond Vietnam.” Here we see how courageous Anabaptists can bring a unique moral power to governments by advocating for the social policies of nonviolence — as King put it, the choice nations face between “nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation.”
Finally, King’s speech reveals the cost of bearing witness to governments. Exactly one year to the day after delivering “Beyond Vietnam,” on April 4, 1968, King was murdered.
“Beyond Vietnam” teaches us what it means for the church to open our minds to examine, and mouths to speak, to places of power.
Chris Rice directs the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office in New York City.