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America is exceptional — in its addiction to violence and war

It's been 55 years, but Martin Luther King's historic speech, 'Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,' rings out as true as ever. To our shame.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks about his opposition to the war in Vietnam at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, in New York. RNS file photo by John C. Goodwin

(RNS) — “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.” Those are the words of Dr. King in 1967, in his historic speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” delivered at Riverside Church in New York City.

This past weekend dozens of faith leaders gathered at Riverside, putting our voices together to read King’s words on this 55th anniversary of the speech. The group that gathered at Riverside for the event — a collaborative effort, sponsored by Red Letter Christians, LIVEFREE, the United Church of Christ, the Black Church Action Fund and the Quincy Institute — included bishops, authors, pastors, activists from around the country and Dr. King’s daughter, the Rev. Dr. Bernice King. Also participating was Bishop Herbert Daughtry, who was present when King delivered the speech in 1967.

Over the course of the evening, we were reminded multiple times how controversial and how courageous the words were … and are. Many of King’s peers deserted him for taking a stand against the war. His board turned against him, except one board member, the Rev. Otis Moss II. In the speech itself, Dr. King mentions all those who question his judgment in speaking out against the war in Vietnam and connecting it to all the other issues of his day. He was increasingly unpopular, and it should not be missed that he was assassinated exactly one year after the Riverside address, to the day. 

So what’s so controversial about it? 

Well, for starters, Dr. King refers to America as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He names America’s “triplets of evil” as racism, extreme materialism and militarism. He calls out the hypocrisy of telling young people “in the ghettoes” that violence will not solve their problems while condoning our government when it resorts to violence. He names the sad irony that we are sending Black kids to fight for liberties thousands of miles away that we haven’t even been able to guarantee them here at home. And yet, just as the speech is filled with hard-to-hear truth, it is also full of hope. 

Many folks appreciate the sanitized King and would prefer the “I Have a Dream” speech. You don’t see many monuments with quotes from the Riverside sermon. Bishop Daughtry noted that he doesn’t think a single quote on the King memorial in D.C. comes from this iconic speech. 

Before we write off King’s assessment of the U.S. as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, dismissing it as extreme or exaggerated, consider this: 

Of the 196 countries in the world, only nine of them have nuclear weapons. And 93% of the nuclear weapons of the world are owned by only two countries — the U.S. and Russia. We are the only country that has ever used them, and we did it twice in one week, killing hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We now have bombs 100 times more lethal than the Hiroshima bomb. And the U.S. arsenal has the capacity of over 100,000 Hiroshima bombs. We have the biggest stockpile, and we have the largest military budget in the history of the world. The Pentagon spends more in 3 seconds than the average American makes in a year, reminding us of King’s words at Riverside: We are approaching a spiritual death.

It is easy for us to be critical of Russia’s violence in Ukraine right now, and we should be. The Riverside speech, however, invites us to get the log out of our own country’s eye.

There are many who speak of “American exceptionalism” — and by that they are referring to America being a beacon for freedom and democracy, the last best hope on earth, God’s anointed messianic force for good. This is a notion King continually challenged with increasing passion all the way to his death. In fact, the sermon King was writing when he was killed, that he never got to preach, was entitled: “Why America Might Go to Hell.” 

It’s not hard to see why King’s words were hard to hear and why he was opposed by so many, even by former friends and board members. 

But truth sets us free. There is another version of American exceptionalism. We are exceptional in our embrace of violence. Using violence to try to get rid of violence. Among all the world’s nations, we are one of only a handful of countries that continues to practice capital punishment. When it comes to the number of executions, we are always in the top 10, and often in the top five. 

America is exceptional in our infatuation with guns. With only 5% of the world’s population, we own nearly half of the world’s civilian-owned guns. There are five times more gun dealers in the U.S. than McDonald’s restaurants. We produce about 9.5 million guns a year, 26,000 guns a day, one gun every three seconds. We have an exceptional problem when it comes to violence. Just as there are companies making millions of dollars off gun sales, we also have corporations like Lockheed Martin that are profiting from war. Over 150 countries have had arms contracts with U.S. companies. After 9/11, the U.S. went to war with Afghanistan and Iraq, even though 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia is still our biggest buyer of weapons, using them to destroy so many lives in Yemen. Dr. King saw all of these connections in his own time, and that is why he had to “break the silence.” 

“Live by the sword, die by the sword” — those are the words of Jesus, Dr. King’s inspiration and savior, and we have proved those words to be true again and again and again.

That is the real American exceptionalism — we are exceptional in our addiction to violence. 

In addition to this month being the anniversary of the Riverside speech and of King’s death, it is also the anniversary of the most ambitious and horrific bombings in history. In 2003, the U.S. and coalition forces launched the “shock and awe” bombing campaign, dropping more than 900 bombs a day on Iraq, killing thousands upon thousands of people. More recently, in 2016, when Barack Obama was president, we dropped 26,000 bombs, an average of three bombs per hour.

Our military spending is not a partisan issue. Obama raised Bush’s military budget. Trump raised Obama’s budget. Biden raised Trump’s budget. What would King say to that? Probably exactly what he said in 1967: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching a spiritual death.” 

We have work to do to continue to “break the silence.” As our world is increasingly plagued by violence — not just in Ukraine but also in the streets of America — we must continue King’s legacy of nonviolence. We, too, must keep breaking the silence. 

(Shane Claiborne is an activist, author and co-director of Red Letter Christians. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)