Spiritual Health Reform

Sunday marked the 42nd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. While best known as a leader of the African-American Rights movement in the 1960s, King also fought for the “reconstruction of [American] society,” which he said was being poisoned by poverty, militarism and materialism.

Exactly one year before his death, Reverend King delivered a speech, Beyond Vietnam, in which he denounced the United States’ military involvement in Indochina. He vividly recounted the widespread destruction of land, of institutions, of Vietnamese self-determination and of the Vietnamese themselves.

“They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one “Vietcong”-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them — mostly children.”

King connected U.S. efforts in Vietnam with suffering at home, calling the war “the enemy of the poor” because it diverted human beings and their creative capacities away from the construction of society and enlisted them, instead, toward its destruction.

This speech marked the expansion of King’s work beyond support for Civil Rights and beyond opposition to U.S. military operations in Southeast Asia. He addressed what he called the “spiritual” health of American society.

This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

These words were matched with action. Most prominently, King helped organize the Poor People’s Campaign, which called for money to be redirected from military use to social use. It demanded the government pass an “economic bill of rights” committed to increasing access to housing, resources and employment.

But in the embryonic stage of the Poor People’s Campaign – officially considered the ‘second phase’ of the Civil Rights Movement – King was assassinated. With its foundation suddenly ripped away, the campaign collapsed.

Forty-two years later, major remembrances of Reverend King typically discuss his Civil Rights work and little else. They fail to place the issue of Civil Rights within the context of his broader critique of American policies, domestic and foreign.

Forty-two years later, that critique is still incisive. As economic inequality and mass unemployment tear at the health of the nation, our government fights two needless wars that rob us of lives, of wealth and of community.

Still, there is now, as there was then, hope for revitalization.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.


  1. Chris

    Well said. It really bothers me how the MLK tributes sanitize his views so much and act as if his dream has already been realized. There is so much left to do…

  2. David Pearson

    Very thoughtful and well-written. Your writing keeps getting better, and the tone of your arguments is maturing. Are we fortunate that there is still justice to be found in the world? Or should we feel shame for continuing to ignore as much we can and still live comfortably?

  3. Clint

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I’m not at all sure what balance to strike between attending to injustice and attending to individual happiness. It’s easy to be consumed by either.

  4. Ian

    Justice and shame are human concepts. Sure other animals have a sense of fairness, and dogs seem to act ashamed when you scold them, but humans fill the notions of “justice” and “shame” with more abstract and arbitrary ideas. I guess what I am saying is that there isn’t one objective right and wrong from person to person. If you feel bad, well, you consent to that. Its up to each of us to decide where the threshold is about how altruistic we need to be to live with ourselves.

  5. Clint

    Welcome back.

  6. Ian

    Thanks. I got tired of watching you guys sit around agreeing with each other.