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Irony of ironies: Honoring King, then entertaining a potential strike on Syria

King was as deeply committed to peace and to nonviolent, nonmilitary solutions to global problems as he was to ending racism.

Hours after delivering a speech honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., President Obama was on PBS' "NewsHour" talking about a possible military strike in Syria.
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The same day America honored the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, remembered mostly for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, America’s first black president, who had just delivered a great speech in honor of King’s dream, appeared on PBS’ “NewsHour” to discuss potential military strikes in Syria.

stewart
Rev. Gordon C. Stewart

King was as deeply committed to peace and to nonviolent, nonmilitary solutions to global problems as he was to ending racism. As his analysis of the national, international and human condition continued to develop, he became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, capitalism, and imperialism. He grasped as well as any public figure of his time, and of ours, the insidious institutional power of an unelected, undemocratic web of the economic-military-corporate complex at work behind the scenes of American public life.

President Barack Obama’s speech from the same spot where where King had stood 50 years before at the March on Washington was a potential seminal moment of American history. To view the president’s “NewsHour” interview later in the day regarding Syria was to see a great contradiction to that potential. I couldn’t put together the president’s honoring of King’s dream just hours earlier with his entertainment of military action in Syria. For whatever reason, the media did not seem to notice the incongruity and the irony.

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The “NewHour” also featured a conversation among foreign-policy experts about the advisability of “punishing” Syria for crossing the red line of chemical weapons. University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer’s raised the gravest voice of caution: “Stay out militarily.” He also reminded the other two panelists and the viewing audience that the United States is the only nation ever to have dropped the bomb. The world has not forgotten. 

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to national prominence because he issued a clarion call for the dawning of the City of Peace in the midst of the City of Cain, the city of bloodshed. In King’s view you can never get to the City of Peace by means of the methods of the City of Cain: violence, the lex talionis, or worse.

Something else is called for before we act

Ethical decisions, in personal life or in international affairs, are rarely simple. Our hearts go out to the innocent children, women and men who died from chemical weapons in Syria. We want to be our brother’s and sister’s keepers. We want to help. We want to stop it. That sense of compassion is as it should be. All hearts should break over this horror. But something else is called for before we act on the impulses of the compassion.

It is also worth remembering who it was that first asked the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It was Cain, who made the statement to God to put the blame for his own homicide back on the One who held him responsible for the senseless murder of his brother Abel in a fit of anger. “Sin is crouching at your door, and you must master it.” King and others who choose the methods of nonviolent resistance to great tragedies like the one in Syria interpret the instruction to Cain — you must master your anger — as the instruction to master one’s own knee-jerk retaliatory response. Patience is required. Taming the lion that crouches at our own door is a chief task of becoming genuinely human.

For King, Mohandas Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and a host of un-noted, anonymous souls, the way of violence, even in behalf of the good, represents a failure to tame the lion crouching at our door and further entrenches the City of Cain.

Beyond the philosophical-ethical-theological considerations are other facts. The “red line” of chemical weapons is one that was crossed years ago. It was crossed in Vietnam. A trip to the nearest Veterans Hospital is a humbling reminder. It was the United States that used Agent Orange and Napalm in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as part of Operation Ranch Hand. Our hands are not clean. As much as we might like, we do not speak from moral high ground. We have already crossed the red line. The moral finger we point toward Syria points back at us. To unleash even the most minimal, narrowly targeted cruise-missile strike on Syria from a warship from the coast of a tinder-box  in a far off place is like throwing out a boomerang expecting that it will not return to us in retributive violence. As King understood so well, violence begets violence.

Confounding factors

As if that were not enough, the struggle in the Middle East is confounded by another form of political-economic-cultural-religious-military violence: the American corporate presence in the oil fields, arranged by American and Saudi elites (Sunni Muslims), and the expropriation through the United Nations of Bedouin Arab land to create a homeland for the survivors of the holocaust of World War II Germany. The intent, so far as the general public was concerned, was compassion. Provide a safe place, a homeland. But the homeland belonged to someone else when the United Nations expropriated it for the creation of the State of Israel, and the Arab world has never forgotten the way it happened.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” drove popular sentiment to support the creation of Israel. Why the homeland was not carved out of Germany or perhaps France is an interesting question. Or why the United States did not carve out of our vast geography a territory in the United States of America as a safe haven, is a question long since ignored by nations who thought they were taking the moral ground but not forgotten by Palestinians, Shiites, and most of the Middle East.

Those questions aside, Israel today is a sovereign state in the midst of an Arab world that resents its presence, the history of its creation, and the United States as its most faithful ally and supporter.

And behind it all stands a military-industrial-technological-corporate complex that feeds on mistakes like Iraq and Afghanistan, and the question of whether we are our brother’s keeper, responsible to play policeman to the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. never lunched on the food at the lunch counter of the military-industrial-technological-corporate complex. Nor should we. Neither should the President. Neither should Congress.

The Abel Project: We are the World

An alternative to a military response with potential catastrophic consequences for the Middle East and for us is the neglected methodology of nonviolent, passive resistance by which King and Gandhi changed the world.

If we and the rest of the world believe in the City of Peace and wish to redeem the blood of Abel in the City of Cain, let the recording artists of the world — with the full support of the United Nations, the Vatican, the World Council of Churches (Orthodox and Protestant Christians), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and international Jewish organizations representing the spectrum of Judaism — lift the people’s voice so clearly across the world that it cannot be ignored.

Call it “The Abel Project” – named for the figure who was lost to the world whose blood still cries out to God from the ground.

Let there be candlelight vigils of prayer for an end to the way of Cain in Syria. Let the lighted candles around the world make their own statement that we, the people of the world, led by the three warring children of Abraham and Sarah (Jews, Christians, and Muslims), stand for the transformation of the City of Cain into the City of Peace.

The president can contribute to that effort, but he must not attempt do it alone.

Unleashing the potential of a worldwide vigil in the spirit of “We are the World” must rely on the untapped power of the United Nations as a force for peaceful resolution, the original dream that inspired its charter. He must do it not only with our closest allies in the West but with the leaders of nations that resent our history in the Middle East and Southeast Asia who are suspicious of American saber-rattling from the Western presumption of moral high ground. The voice of the world must include the two warring branches of Islam — Sunni and Shiite — whose tensions and hatreds also lie at the center of the conflict in Syria and most of the Middle Eastern Arab States.

If he does, the irony between the Aug. 28, 2013, commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the poor people’s march on Washington and the evening news will resolve itself in a new decision to honor the legacy of the fallen witness to the power of nonviolent resistance and the power of love as the only method and power that ever really change the City of Cain. For the sake of Abel, our slain ancestral brother, let the candles be lit across the world.

The Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska. He writes “Views from the Edge: Social Commentary with Gordon C. Stewart.”

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