When Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his final speech on April 3, 1968 – a speech in which he urged support for the labor strike of Memphis, Tennessee’s African American sanitation workers – he spoke candidly about having received death threats prior to his arrival in Memphis. Because of the threats, King told his audience, the plane upon which he arrived had to be (according to the pilot) “‘protected and guarded all night,’” and the bags of the other passengers on his plane subjected to heightened security checks.
“I got into Memphis,” King continued,
“And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out, or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.
Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
What was significant about this speech, and this moment, was not – as many have speculated –that King had some kind of sixth sense about his impending assassination. Instead, what made this moment important was that King modeled the capacity we all have to transform into a source of power our physical vulnerability to others’ violence; to claim as “our” brothers and sisters those who want to harm us and, in the process, to recognize their need for healing; and, to let go of our attachment to “longevity” – indeed, to our fear of death – precisely because these attachments keep us from seeing, and erecting, our vision of a better society.
King was not special. He was just a man, one who decided that he would not let his vulnerability distort his vision, turn him against others, and compromise his highest ideals and deeply held beliefs. He died for them, yes. But he also lived for them.
The “current threat of terrorism,” wrote Leela Fernandes in Transforming Feminist Practice, “is a real one and the fear which people feel is also real.” Consequently, “if progressive activist-thinkers gloss over this reality they will not be able to reach a wider public base.” The “difficulty,” Fernades continued, “is to provide a courageous alternative at precisely the point where individuals feel their own personal safety is at risk, for it is usually at this point of perceived vulnerability that we are most willing to put up our fences, lash out at others and forsake our deepest ideals.” Indeed, the “question of security poses the deepest possible spiritual challenge to individuals, communities and nations – for it is an area which has created the most distortion around the meaning of self-preservation. From a spiritual perspective, any act that causes harm to another can never ultimately be an act of self-preservation.”
King’s demonstration – “a spiritualized practice of nonviolence,” to use Fernandes’ words – is the stuff from which we can create “a courageous alternative,” one that will allow us to attend with an open heart to our countrymen and women’s (and our) growing hysteria, fear, and utter sense of vulnerability concerning both the emergence of ISIS and the continued threats of “terrorism,” as well as the warmongering and hate that are feeding all of it. Instead of submitting to vulnerability and fear, and consequently closing ranks, we could use both to engage and resist ISIS as well as others who do terrorism (and that includes our countrymen and women) in ways that claim them, absolutely, as “our” sick brothers and sisters in need of healing. We dare to see ourselves in them, in fact – to pursue policies rendered unthinkable by our belief that a Self/Other view of the world is the only realistic vision we can have for humankind. By daring to step into this kind of vulnerability, we might very well break the cycle of carnage and counter-carnage that passes as both self-preservation and foreign policy.
And I say this conceding that, by now, the men and women whom we call “terrorists” – and certainly ISIS – are probably beyond our reach. To use the words of South African theologian Allen Aubrey Boesak, “I am painfully aware that deeply complex situations arise where nonviolent intervention comes too late, where the world, for various reasons, has hesitated too long, has erred fatally on the side of greed, neglect, or indifference, has invested too vastly and for too long in the entrenchment of tyrants of all kinds.”
However, it is not too late to examine ourselves and to look at the question of terrorism – foreign and domestic – in terms of our having failed to choose nonviolence in the first instance (by, for example, refusing to underwrite tyrants, to sacrifice the needs of the many for the benefit of the few, to hoard resources, to live with great indifference in the midst of profound poverty and despair). It is not too late to see self-preservation as inextricably bound to the well-being of others, or to see in the violence around us the harm we have caused.
And it is certainly not too late to reject our politicians’ invitation to retributive justice and joyful, sacred violence.
But all of that self-examination requires that we ultimately let go of our attachment to the longevity of this empire, does it not? We must look at death – the death of our bodies, the death of our idea of self, the death of nation, the death of anything and everything that makes it impossible for us to speak in terms of I and I – and fearlessly say, as did King, that we are “not concerned about that now.” For the place we want to get to – peace – is the place we must bring into being with a willingness to pay the price if we must, so that we can one day sit and break bread with all of our sisters and brothers – all of them, without exception.
For Joanie, my mother (d. 11/24/2012)
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While there are countless reasons why Bernie Sanders’ adoption of a Racial Justice platform that tackles violence against African Americans is both extraordinary and unprecedented, certainly one reason must be that the platform in effect charges our government with the responsibility to practice nonviolence toward African Americans in particular and people of color generally. In fact, Sanders’ platform – the adoption of which was instigated by #BlackLivesMatter activists – presupposes that folks of color deserve nonviolence, both from the government and from private citizens. We deserve it, the platform suggests, because we are a valuable part of the body politic – “we must pursue policies that transform this country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color” – and because it is right and just.
The platform is not, as one might imagine, merely a recitation of platitudes about racism and justice (though it certainly includes many); instead, it offers specific policy changes that Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists hope will help to make African Americans’ and others’ lived experiences of violence a thing of the past: police retraining, expanding the franchise, ending the War on Drugs, banning “prisons for profit,” investing in youth employment programs. These are just a few of the proposals that the platform outlines.
Of course, the word “nonviolence” does not actually appear in Sanders’ Racial Justice platform, even though the platform refers to and quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. in the section dedicated to economic violence.
Nevertheless, with its focus on “the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans – physical, political, legal and economic,” it is hard not to see that what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists have done is something quite in keeping with what King did in “Beyond Vietnam,” his crucial 1967 speech against the Vietnam War: denounce the government’s violence and require from it something radically different. For King, that radically different something was for the government to conduct domestic and foreign policy in ways that reinforce “brotherhood,” and thus for it to choose “nonviolent coexistence” over “violent co-annihilation.” For Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists, that something is for the government to refrain from waging violence against black and brown people.
Because Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists produced a platform that expresses in great measure the spirit of King’s challenge, they accomplished something rather remarkable: they inadvertently produced a framework by which we can construct a platform that commits us to making nonviolence the crux of our nation’s domestic and foreign policies. Physical, political, legal and economic violence – these categories certainly capture what we justify nationally and internationally as in our national interest, and thus they provide us an opportunity to offer the kind of nonviolent alternatives we sorely need. Our undeclared war against ISIS, the unspeakable suffering of the Syrian people, the horrific attack in Paris, the everyday violence we suffer at the hands of one another – what else do we need to add in order to see, finally, that we really must choose between nonviolent coexistence and violent co-annihilation? What other kind of mass shooting, suicide bombing, war – what other kind of atrocity do you require?
So, forgive me for having the audacity to offer a nonviolent political platform – a work-in-progress that builds upon (and borrows from) what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists started. I offer this because it is clear to me that unless and until ordinary citizens step up to put forward alternatives to our culture of violence, we will continue to be mired in bloodshed, hate, and conflict both here and abroad until we destroy ourselves. It is my hope that you will comment, critique, talk about and add to what I have written here. It is my hope that you will even imagine a platform more daring, one that shifts this superpower inexorably toward militant nonviolence and to which you will, through bold action, hold every single candidate accountable from now until November 2016.
Buried deep in the trenches of President Obama’s foreign policy speech at West Point yesterday sits this little gem, one pundits on the whole are sure to overlook but one I thought deserves our attention: America stands (the president proclaimed) “for the more lasting peace that can only come through opportunity for people everywhere.”
To be sure, this statement is American jingoism at its best, but it made me wonder: had this been President Obama’s opening shot, the first words to float elegantly out of his mouth, what direction would his speech have taken, and just what kind of foreign policy doctrine would have unfolded?
Starting with this gem, it seems to me that he would have actually had to explain more precisely just what he meant. Imagine with me, if you will, that he would have found apropos the words spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. upon his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.”
The audacity to believe.
Imagine with me further the president speaking from his audacity to believe that any foreign policy worth pursuing is one that starts from the bottom, that is, from the perspective of those who go without one meal a day, let alone three; of those for whom education is a luxury, and a decent education – a dream; of those whose spirits are run down by the greedy, the cynical, the uncaring, the bigoted, the hateful. And of those who face daily the ravages of war, of drone attacks that, with great “certainty,” could have only produced “civilian casualties.”
Such a foreign policy, I imagine, would speak to the terrorism of hunger – would frame it, in fact, as “the most direct threat to America at home and abroad.” It would proclaim the absolute capacity we and “our partners” have to eradicate poverty everywhere. And it would speak to that terrorism because it would pose these questions: what do those on the bottom need in order to live without violence, without hunger? What do they need in order to live full lives, free of domination, inequality, injustice? It would assume that the first order of business with any nation is to ask, are your people doing well? Do they have enough to eat? What can we do to help?
Such a policy would, without hesitation, name nonviolence as its guiding principle – not just peace, but nonviolence, an active, purposeful commitment to real peace at home and abroad. Which means that the policy would presuppose the necessity of disarming our own citizens, of removing assault weapons from our closets and sock drawers, of making sure that violence in Chicago or Santa Barbara would be a thing of the past.
Listen as President Obama re-orders what he referred to in his speech as “elements” of “American leadership.” Instead of offering to us as the “fourth and final element” our “willingness to act on human dignity,” he offers it instead as the first.
From there, of course, he would have to talk forthrightly about Guantanamo, that travesty of justice begun during the Bush II years and shamefully extended into the second term of Obama’s own presidency. “Our own government,” he’d have the audacity to say, “has demonstrated a stunning disrespect for human rights,” and the “force feeding that I have condoned and which I will end today” has fed “instability” as well as “the grievances that fuel violence and terror.” He would admit that it is no longer good enough for him to simply say [as he did in his speech] that “I will continue to push to close GTMO.”
But that’s not the speech or policy that we got from President Obama, whose audacity to hope has never quite translated into audacity. What we got instead is a foreign policy in which “opportunity for people everywhere” is just a passing thought, and “human dignity” is a bookend to a doctrine where “terrorism,” and not the unmet needs of people everywhere, figures as America’s number one threat.