Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the world’s great peace leaders. Like Gandhi before him, he was a firm advocate of nonviolence. In 1955, at the age of 26, he became the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott and two years later he was elected the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Within a decade he would receive the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35. It came two years after he witnessed the terrifying prospects of nuclear war during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
King’s Nobel Lecture, delivered in December 1964, is worth reviewing. He compared mankind’s technological advancement with our spiritual progress and found us failing to keep pace spiritually. He said, “There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple act of living together as brothers.”
The yawning gap between mankind’s technological advancement and spiritual poverty led King to draw this conclusion: “If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual ‘lag’ must be eliminated. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul. When the ‘without’ of man’s nature subjugates the ‘within,’ dark storm clouds begin to form in the world.” He found that mankind’s spiritual “lag” expressed itself in three interrelated problems: racial injustice, poverty and war.
When King elaborated on war, he spoke of “the ever-present threat of annihilation,” clearly referring to the dangers of nuclear weapons. Recognizing the dangers of denial, or “rejection” of the truth about the nuclear predicament, he went on, “A world war – God forbid! – will leave only smoldering ashes as a mute testimony of a human race whose folly led inexorably to ultimate death. So if modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war, he will transform his earthly habitat into an inferno such as even the mind of Dante could not imagine.”
King came to the following realization: “Somehow we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race which no one can win to a positive contest to harness man’s creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all of the nations of the world. In short, we must shift the arms race into a ‘peace race.’ If we have the will and determination to mount such a peace offensive, we will unlock hitherto tightly sealed doors and transform our imminent cosmic elegy into a psalm of creative fulfillment.”
One year to the day prior to his assassination on April 4, 1968, King gave a speech at the Riverside Church in New York City that was highly critical of the war in Vietnam. Many of his close advisors urged him not to speak out and to instead keep his focus on the civil rights movement, but he felt the time had come when silence is betrayal and chose to state his position. He put the Vietnam War squarely within his moral vision and spoke against it to the great displeasure of Lyndon Johnson and many other American political leaders. In addition to speaking his mind on the war, he also said that nuclear weapons would never defeat communism and called for reordering our priorities to pursue peace rather than war. He argued, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Were he still with us, there can be little doubt that King would be highly critical of America’s continuing wars since Vietnam, and its plan to spend $1 trillion on modernizing its nuclear arsenal. Since his death, the gap between our technological prowess and our spiritual/moral values has continued to widen. We would do well to listen to King’s insights and follow his vision if we are to have any chance of pulling out of the descending spiral leading to the nation’s “spiritual death.”