Upon contemplating Martin Luther King on this day set aside for his remembrance, I turn to one of his late speeches: “Beyond Vietnam” that was delivered in New York City a year before his death. This is one of his most significant messages to the nation and the world; however, delivering it sealed his fate as a contentious figure. He was maligned by many for his words that day. Perhaps the vitriol directed toward him following this speech best illustrates the depth of the wound to which he was speaking. Those who cannot love themselves recoil from the observation that love is the power that is most needed for transformation.
King’s words reverberate today:
“This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I’m not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another (Yes), for love is God. (Yes) And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love. . . . If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.”
The foundation of love is built on trust. As James Baldwin has so piercingly observed of Americans in his essay “Nothing Personal”: “our failure to trust one another deeply enough to be able to talk to one another has become so great that people with these questions in their hearts do not speak them ….” The toxic political environment and troubled social climate of today demonstrates the lack of trust between Americans and indeed people around the world today. Let us – who believe in justice, truth and love – talk to one another. Let us sow the seeds of conversation that might grow into trees of love which are rooted in trust.
Social transformation is not solely the job of politicians or other leaders. It begins with each of us having the courage to love ourselves. That in itself could be the work of a lifetime. It is a worthy effort. Personal transformation is the first true step to social transformation. As Baldwin reminds us: “It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light.” Finding that light and revealing it to the world is no absurdity. It is what will save us. Let us make it now, as King suggested so many years ago, “the order of the day.”
Read King’s entire speech here.