Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces.Usually it is a day of sentimental nostalgia, long on the greatness of the American Empire as the saviour of the world syndrome and short on the reality that the modern wars especially Vietnam and Iraq were catastrophic blunders.Monday was memorial Day in the USA.
As usual Democracy Now the thoughtful NPR American radio show hosted by that audio treasure Ami Goodman brought a whiff of reality and self-reflection into public consciousness.The show focused on Vietnam and in particular the brave people who resisted this imperial misadventure.
Fifty years ago, on March 7, 1965, 3,500 U.S. marines landed in South Vietnam, marking the start of the U.S. ground war in Vietnam. That same day, in Alabama, state troopers beat back civil rights protesters in Selma trying to walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Weeks later, the first teach-in against the Vietnam War was held at the University of Michigan. By 1968, the U.S. had half a million troops in Vietnam. The war continued until April 1975. Some scholars estimate as many as 3.8 million Vietnamese died during the war, up to 800,000 perished in Cambodia, another one million in Laos. The U.S. death toll was 58,000.
On May 2 and 3 a conference entitled “Vietnam: The Power of Protest” was held at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.One of the speakers was former Oakland Congress member Ron Dellums, who was elected to Congress in 1970 during the height of the Vietnam War and went on to serve 27 years in that branch of government.
Listening to Dellums a number of thoughts crossed my mind.
First, bravo to the Presbyterian Church for daring to hold such an important look at history. You will never find a Catholic church stepping beyond the safe and predictable, so bourgeois and middle class has the institution. Today in San Francisco where Dellums is from (actually across the bay in Oakland) Catholics took a full page ad out to ask the pope to remove the John Paul ll bishop Salvatore Cordileone. The plea follows months of dissent within the archdiocese over Cordileone’s emphasis on traditional, conservative church doctrine — including asking high school teachers and staffers at Catholic schools to sign a morality clause that characterizes sex outside of marriage and homosexual relations as “gravely evil.”.
The point here being that the last 30 years the Catholic church under the last two popes have bypassed prophetic voices within the institution and raised up timorous bishops who seemingly do not have a prophetic bone in their bodies. You would be hard pressed here and the USA to find a church which would host such an event on war and peace, poverty, the environment etc.
Dellums, a 79 year old black man made several interesting points which should have spoken to Christians who just celebrated Pentecost, the explosive force of the Spirit which sent believers out to transform society.
First, he pointed out how people in big American cities in the turbulent 60s had to hear what we would call “the signs of the times.”
Somethings happening here,what it is ain’t exactly clear,
I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound Everybody look what’s going down
sang the Buffalo Springfield
So, unlike many other places, we were forced to sense each other’s anger, to feel each other’s rage, to listen to each other’s analysis, to feel each other’s passion, to listen to each other’s music. And I maintain that out of that incredible cauldron of activism, a unique group of people emerged. So we heard—we had to hear each other. Interesting word—hear- one had to get beyond the official story, the government handouts, the horrific justifications for war, inn other words,the flag waving.One of the first persons dellums met was Robert Scheer, same age, a New York Jew transplanted to the west coast.Scheer is till active editing the great website Truthdig where another Presbyterian Chris hedges holds for the on a regular basis,
Dellums spoke about his Spirit moment, his time of enlightenment when the black Moses mounted the pulpit on april 4th in riverside church in new york. Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of the greatest speeches in American history—and I would also add—church history. The black Baptist pastor called out his own government in a sermon he called Beyond Vietnam.
Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world.”
The sermon took the top of Dellum’s head off.iIt was as if he was in that upper room with Jesus.
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: ‘Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?’ ‘Why are you joining the voices of dissent?’ ‘Peace and civil rights don’t mix,’ they say. ‘Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people,’ they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.
In the light of such tragic misunderstanding, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church – the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate – leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.”
It was courageous and historic. He laid out his moral opposition. He saw it as unjust, illegal and immoral. When he stepped away from the pulpit, he was attacked by people in the civil rights movement by saying, “Martin, stay in your lane, brother. You’re a civil rights activist. Don’t water down the movement. You’re going to invite new enemies. You’re going to detract from what we’re doing. Stay in your lane.” Whites attacked him essentially the same way, by saying, “Reverend Martin Luther King, stay in your lane. You’re a civil rights leader. What do you know about foreign policy and national security and war and peace? Stay in your lane.”
So Martin Luther King begins to criss-cross the country to answer his critics. He comes to Berkeley, California, Sproul Hall steps, University of California at Berkeley, crowded literally with thousands of people. A young black guy, Ron Dellums, standing way in the back of the several thousand people, hanging on every word, didn’t realize at that moment that my life would be changed forever.
Dellums experienced his Damascus moment.
And I would comment on four points that he made in that speech and speeches going forward challenging the war in Vietnam. First, he said, “Why did I stand up?” His response was, “I cannot segregate my moral concerns.” That said to me that we must challenge all forms of injustice, because Martin Luther King said we cannot segregate our moral concerns.
Secondly, he said there are two kinds of leaders, one who waits until the consensus is formed and then run swiftly to the front of the group and declare leadership, but then he said there’s a second kind of leader, who has the audacity and the courage to risk attempting to shape a new consensus. I interpreted that to mean we had carried the burden of racial, cultural and economic oppression, but we did not have to carry the burden of ignorance, that we had the obligation, the right and the responsibility to enter the arena and be educative, to educate our people, to help them to understand the interrelatedness, the interconnectedness, the relationships between and among all issues of oppression and injustice.
One of his lessons of education was a statement that was so vivid, so powerful: “We are dropping bombs in North Vietnam that are exploding in the ghettos and the barrios of America.” How incredibly poetic! How incredibly powerful, the vision! He was saying to people, understand the relationship between the billions of dollars that are being spent to wage war and the inability to address the injustice that is taking place in the ghettos and the barrios of America, the issue of priorities. Very powerful.
But, to me, the most powerful statement, that shaped my life forever, was this comment: “Peace is more than simply the absence of war; it is the presence of justice.” I interpreted that to mean, wow, the peace movement is the ultimate movement. Peace is the superior idea, that the umbrella movement for—of all movements, the peace movement, because to come together under the banner of peace forces us to challenge all forms of injustice.
Suppose everyone—because I believe that the movement to end the war in Vietnam ultimately became the largest and most powerful movement in the country. But when the war in Vietnam ended, many of the people went home and left us to fight racism, poverty, hunger, disease, homelessness, helplessness—went home. And my great lament in my life has been: What would have happened in this country and in this world if people had heard Martin Luther King and said, “Now that we’ve ended the war in Vietnam, let’s get on with dealing with other forms of injustice”? What would the world look like?
Martin Luther King told us to raise our voices in the name of peace and justice and equality and peace, because it was the right thing, the moral thing, the ethical thing, the principled thing to do. This generation must do it because it’s now the only thing to do. It has now become the imperative. So what was principle for our generation now is the imperative for this generation, because we know that the price of war is too high. We know that the price of neglect of the issues that affect the human condition, we do it at our peril, so that we have a responsibility now to address the imperative.
A second difference is, Martin Luther King never told us we couldn’t do it. He said go out and change the world. Remember, he said, “I may not be with you at the end, but I have reached the mountaintop, and I can tell you this: We will achieve.” So we felt that we could change the world, and we went out to change the world.
And Catholics all over the world heard the same gospel on Pentecost
Peace be with you.As the Father sent me,so I send you. John 20;21