What Martin Luther King Got Wrong about the World
By Robert Nicholson in the Philos Project
Next week Americans will celebrate the life of a Baptist pastor from Atlanta who singlehandedly transformed a generation. Through patience, eloquence, and sheer personal virtue, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ushered in an era of coexistence between black and white that was unprecedented in the history of this country. His memory continues to inspire us, and the holiday bearing his name serves a rallying point for all who care about justice.
Yet even the great Dr. King made mistakes. And April 1967 marked his greatest one.
Exactly one year before his death, in what was undoubtedly the most controversial speech of his career, King took the rostrum at Riverside Church in New York City and blasted the U.S. government for invading Vietnam and daring to decide what was best for its future. Rebuking “deadly Western arrogance” and calling his government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” King vehemently denounced the war and demanded its immediate cessation. He called on Americans to shirk their military duty and press for dramatic reforms in their nation’s foreign policy.
The last point is key. It would have been one thing if King had limited his comments to President Johnson’s policies in Vietnam. Such talk was not uncommon, and many good people disagreed and continue to disagree over the tactical wisdom of America’s sojourn in Southeast Asia. But because King went so far (as the title of his speech implied) and because he mounted such a vicious attack on the general nature of US conduct around the world, it is imperative that we examine his vision and measure it against both Christian values and the real world of public affairs.
It’s difficult to criticize a giant like Dr. King. But no mortal is above criticism, and King would have likely been the first to admit that.
So what exactly was the nature of his vision?
First, King wanted an immediate end to the war and acceptance of Communist rule in Vietnam. He also recommended that the United States pay war reparations, grant asylum to any Vietnamese person who wished to flee, and provide medical care to anyone in-country who desired it. In the meantime, so long as Johnson remained bent on violence, King urged churches and synagogues to “seek out every creative method of protest possible.”
More importantly, King wanted a complete volte face in America’s engagement abroad. The war in Vietnam was merely the “symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit” – a malady that could only be cured by a “true revolution of values” based on the “brotherhood of man” and “all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind.” The end goal must be the creation of a “worldwide fellowship” in which “every nation [would] develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.” His was a far-reaching view of international relations based on the concept of love – a virtue that King believed “all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle” in human affairs.
The first step was to abolish war since “this way of settling differences is not just.” Only then could a “positive thrust for democracy” and “new systems of justice and equality” take root. King did not deny that America had enemies, but he attributed their animosity to the despicable nature of America’s own conduct. If America stopped running roughshod over the world, enemies would become friends. “[C]ommunism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated,” he proclaimed. Neither communism nor any other threat would be “defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons.” No solution would succeed until “some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.”
How to initiate such a dramatic rearrangement of American priorities? For that King turned to the revolutionary tide that was already sweeping the world. Men everywhere in the late 1960s were throwing off oppressive governments. The West needed to support them. “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit,” King said, “and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” Only this way could the “pending cosmic elegy” of humanity be turned to a “creative psalm of peace.” Only then would “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
Near the end of his speech, King delivered a grave ultimatum. “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihiliation,” he said, warning that if Americans chose the latter they would find themselves damned to “the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
Fearful imagery, to be sure.
Any critique of King’s vision should begin where his critique of Vietnam ended. Weighing the actions of one’s government in a theater of war is not wrong, and when done properly, squares well with both Christianity and democracy. Unfortunately King framed his otherwise legitimate criticism in inflammatory terms, comparing the United States to Nazi Germany at least three times in the course of his speech.
But the real flaw in King’s vision stemmed from a fundamental misconception about how the world works and how God operates within it. He misread human nature, the role of church and state, the nature of international society, and the distinction between spiritual and temporal things. These errors made faulty pillars for his grand theory of history, and it’s no surprise that King’s sweeping predictions about the future ultimately crumbled under the weight of reality.
The most obvious flaw in King’s worldview was his naïve and unbiblical view of human nature. He invoked ideas of universal brotherhood and pan-religious love, and based his entire vision on the truth of these claims. He seemed to think that if men could topple all oppressive regimes, peace would come at last. If Americans could reign in their rebellious government, enemies would start to like us. The universal love lying beneath the surface would inevitably rise into view.
But neither human experience nor holy writ affirms King’s suppositions. The annals of mankind are plagued by warfare, and violent men have had their way wherever good men have remained silent. Scripture tells the story of a race bound by common blood but torn by irredeemable depravity outside the bounds of divine grace. “Human nature,” wrote Augustine, “ indeed was created at first faultless and without any sin. But that human nature in which everyone is born from Adam now wants the Physician, because it is not sound.” The idea that all men are equally enthralled by love and the desire to coexist is a gross assumption expressly contradicted by reason and revelation.
Roles of Church and State
King’s emphasis on unconditional love resonates deeply with how the church views the world. But his attempt to universalize that view and apply it to government fails on every level. The state is not the church and the church is not the state. God didn’t ordain governments to love people – he ordained the church for that. According to the Apostle Paul, God instituted the state to execute justice and “bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” The Apostle Peter describes its job as “punish[ing] those who do evil and prais[ing] those who do good.”
Viewed in light of these New Testament texts (not to mention an Old Testament rich with war and statecraft), King’s call for President Johnson to lay down his arms and join a worldwide brotherhood seems irresponsible at best and heretical at worst. Blessed with salvation and defended by almighty God, the church can afford to love unconditionally. But the state is not designed for that and never was.
Everyone wants justice. But justice is impossible without law, and law is impossible without coercive power. States must bear the sword and Christians must be thankful for it. King’s demand for “new systems of justice and equality” ignored the obvious questions that any rational person would ask: How will these systems be implemented? How will they be defended against violent men? And how will they be maintained over the long-term?
Like it or not, the answer is physical power. And interestingly enough, the New Testament sees a role for that.
Dr. King took for granted the world in which he lived, not realizing it was the product of a distinct international society created by the very powers he wished to dethrone. Lofty concerns about love, fraternity, and universal human rights had not been norms in history. They were commodities of Christian and post-Christian Europe that had only lately been exported to the isles of the world. King’s longing to displace the guarantors of that culture – the United States and its progenitors, Great Britain and the Netherlands – seems odd given his desire to disseminate it.
There was once a medieval king who gained peace in his realm by doggedly punishing vice and promoting virtue as far as his rule would reach. But down in the village lived a man who held the king and his castle in derision. “This land is safe and happy,” he said to his neighbors, “and we’d be much better off without such an ugly monument to power. The king should tear down his turrets and come live in the village like everyone else. Were it not for him and his army, we could join with other villages around the world — even those on our borders that want to attack us — and bring all mankind into an age of prosperity. Our enemies are our enemies only because the king is arrogant. His arrogance undermines peace.”
The mistake of confusing present conditions for permanent ones and imperfect justice for abuse of power is not uncommon. That Dr. King fell into it is not a surprise. But given his remarkable clarity on so many other issues, his misread of Communist intentions and third world ambitions is puzzling.
Regardless of how he viewed America’s containment strategy in Vietnam, King would have hopefully agreed that broader confrontation with Communism was necessary. This was a titanic struggle for virtue; not a misunderstanding that Communists wanted to “talk out” with the West. Indeed, if Johnson and other Cold War presidents had taken King’s advice and laid down their arms, there is no doubt that the Kremlin and its allies would have razed the Anglo-American order to the ground, and with it, the entire project of freedom.
Power of the Gospel
Perhaps the biggest problem with King’s global vision, at least from the stance of orthodoxy, was his conflation of things spiritual with things temporal. Seeing political revolutions sweeping the globe, King described the revolutionaries as “people who sat in darkness [who] have seen a great light.” He urged his colleagues to embrace this revolutionary spirit and help “speed the day when ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.’” Looking toward the future he said, “[W]e will be able to transform…our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood…and speed up the day…when ‘justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”
Any Christian familiar with these texts will recognize them as messianic portents of the coming eschaton. King’s use of them to describe post-colonial uprisings substituted the power of the gospel for the power of social action. King forgot that true peace and justice are impossible under the curse, and that all men are gone astray. He forgot that “the whole drama of human history,” as Reinhold Niebuhr once put it, “is under the scrutiny of a divine judge who laughs at human pretensions[.]” And he forgot that this judge, and only this judge, will decide when mountains are leveled and crooked paths are made straight.
Confusing redemption of the soul and recreation of the cosmos with Marxist uprisings in the third world betrays a deeper problem in King’s theology. Christians who wait for the cosmic restoration of all things must not be lured by these kinds of utopian promises rooted in the present world. Working to promote human rights and minimize violence between Christ’s two advents is one thing; affixing messianic labels to carnal events is quite another.
King’s grand dichotomy between nonviolent coexistence and violent coannihilation was, like so many dichotomies, a false one. America was not facing such a dramatic moment, and subsequent events demonstrated that we were not destined for either path.
But that doesn’t mean America’s victory over Soviet Communism was inevitable or easy. It was the product of many small acts, many hard choices, and many lost lives. Ultimately it was the result of sustained strength over time. Early on, keen minds recognized that this battle went far beyond a simple struggle over territory and markets. This was a war of ideas, and the United States staked its future and the future of the free world on a strategy to win.
The same year King delivered his speech at Riverside, British philosopher Philippa Foot invented the famous ethical dilemma that became known as the Trolley Problem. Should one steer a runaway train off course to avoid killing five workers on the track if doing so means killing one worker on another track? People will die either way, but who dies and who decides? Should one act boldly to save as much life as possible, or refrain from acting and let fate decide?
States face trolley problems every day, and America faced them often during the Cold War. Was it better to invade a small country in order to preempt a much larger (but not totally certain) war with Moscow? Was it better to bomb a village where suspected Vietcong were hiding amongst civilians, or was it better to pull back and protect the civilians, hoping that more lives would be saved than those taken later at the hands of the guerrillas?
These choices are not easy and thankfully most of us don’t have to make them. But God expects states to make them and holds rulers accountable for making them wisely.
The church should work tirelessly to bring a Christian conscience to all matters of state, both foreign and domestic, and help our leaders discern right from wrong as those terms are defined by our moral tradition. That’s something the church can do, especially in a democracy. And we can disagree, even vehemently, with government policies that contradict our principles. But we must be careful not to make impossible demands of an institution erected by God to make tough choices on our behalf. While we cannot give to Caesar what is God’s, neither can we condemn Caesar for his want of godlike perfection.
Americans should celebrate Martin Luther King for everything he did to challenge racism and poverty in this country. He was a shining star of our times, and perhaps of all time.
But we must recognize that his grand vision for world affairs was faulty and to be avoided at all costs, not because it was rhetorically unimpressive but because it was essentially untrue. The malady of pride that King hoped to eradicate from U.S. policy was a malady of the human spirit, and nothing can truly cure it apart from the power of the gospel fully realized in a city whose builder and maker is God.