The "macroethics" of Martin Luther King Jr.: When he spoke out against the Vietnam War even his supporters deserted him -- here's how he endured

Amid the onslaught following his Vietnam speech, King relied on righteousness, justice and truth to carry on

Published January 18, 2016 6:30PM (EST)

 Martin Luther King Jr. (AP/Charles Kelly)
Martin Luther King Jr. (AP/Charles Kelly)

Those who knew him well said he loved to joke, loved to laugh. He’d laughed much since the victory in Montgomery, the March on Washington, the cascade of accolades and roses bestowed by the Nobel Prize. But it was August of 1967 and there was little laughter in him. The funereal colors of his everyday business suits, usually so foreign to his disposition, now perfectly reflected his everyday moods. Looking back, his close aide Andrew Young would say: “He talked about death all the time…. He couldn’t relax, he couldn’t sleep.”

But his afflictions went far beyond insomnia. He was beset by severe depression, constant exhaustion, nagging stomach discomfort, recurrent headaches and extended fits of hiccups; the alchemy of anxiety and stress that dogged his steps for 13 tension-filled years had exacted an increasingly frightful toll. So frightful, in fact, that the physician conducting his autopsy mere months later would exclaim that the heart of the 39-year-old King was as worn as the heart of a man twice his age.

King’s heart was so worn because he’d suffered more than most: from bombings, beatings, a sharpened letter opener thrust a hair’s breadth from his heart; from fusillades of spittle, sharp-edged rocks and well-aimed bottles; from daily threats of murder most foul. And unknown to most, he suffered from a profound fear of Southern jails, the fruit of one of the earliest of his 39 arrests. As it is told, deep in the night hours two sullen guards roused him from his cell, purloined him from the city jail without explanation and drove him so deep into the country that he was certain he was on the way to his personal Golgotha, on the way to a fate so horrible that he would pray for death. He sat cuffed and drenched in cold sweat and terror, his imagination running wild, his heart thundering in his chest, as the policemen’s car traversed unlit country roads for what seemed like hours, until they reached a squat brick building; not to lynch him, as it turned out, but to deposit him in yet another jail for reasons they never shared. This brief descent into hell forever marked him. From that terror-filled night when he was certain his agonized screams would split the dark, the fear of jail ran in him as deeply as marrow. Yet, without fail, every time it suited the movement’s needs he choked back his fear, summoned courage from some deep inner place, and time after time submitted his body to the wiles and furies of maddened jailers.

So yes, Martin Luther King was used to suffering, but this -- this was different. It was long since the glory days of his now defanged, domesticated dream, but only months since he had committed his April 4 blasphemy of declaring to the world – from the pulpit of the venerable Riverside Church, no less -- that he and his Nobel Prize saw no romance in bullet-torn flesh, whether in Vietnam or in any other militarist misadventure: “I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was a commission … to work harder than I ever had for the brotherhood of man. This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances.” He declared that the indiscriminate destruction of Vietnamese people and property was “adding cynicism to the process of death.” He lamented the psycho-spiritual toll that the war was taking on America: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” But his political fate was sealed when, with palpable chagrin, he raised the true but incendiary charge that his own country was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

Suddenly, those he was willing to die for turned their backs to him; to legions of former supporters – both black and white – King became persona non grata almost overnight. He was savaged from every side as an ingrate, a traitor, an enemy of the state. One White House official declared that King had gone “all the way Communist.” J. Edgar Hoover, the nefarious head of the FBI, smirked that his appraisal of King as “the most dangerous man in America” was now conclusively confirmed. The formerly supportive white liberal media also spurned King, while the black press unceremoniously deserted him. America’s most influential periodicals, the New York Times and the Washington Postboth strongly berated King, with the Washington Post claiming that King, “has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.” The Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper and a former King stalwart, now lamented that he was "tragically misleading" black Americans. In all, 163 American newspapers almost simultaneously codified their scorn for King in print.

But it did not stop there. Even his civil rights compatriots, his supposed brothers in arms, deserted him. The Urban League’s Whitney Young spoke out against him, as did the powerful congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who publicly derided him as “Martin Loser King.” Ralph Bunche, the venerable diplomat and the first African-American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, disavowed King’s “radicality” with all the dignity befitting his station. Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP and King’s full-time competitor, opposed him openly and derisively. Journalist and former ambassador Carl Rowan angrily chided King in his syndicated column and in the pages of Reader’s Digest for offending President Johnson -- whom he apotheosized as “the greatest civil rights president in history” -- by daring to call Johnson’s increasingly deadly Vietnam foray what much of the world eventually saw it to be: “madness,” charged King. “[A] demonic, destructive suction tube.”

Nor did the maelstrom end there. Fast on the heels of the vitriolic fallout from his Vietnam speech the Supreme Court cleared the way to return King to the infamous Birmingham jail for violating a court injunction against protest marches. “Now even the Supreme Court has turned against us,” he sighed mournfully. To add insult to injury, when his book "Where Do We Go From Here?" appeared in the midst of the controversy, it was greeted with public indifference, tepid reviews and very disappointing sales. The comment of one critic well summarized King’s plight: “Whites have ceased to believe in him, or really to care; the blacks hardly listen.”

King silently smothered beneath what must have seemed to him an almost universal condemnation. His public approval ratings plummeted to new lows that warmed his opponents’ hearts. In the final poll taken while he was alive more than 70 percent of Americans thought him irrelevant; a full 55 percent of blacks opposed him or found him no longer socially useful. Depressed, bedeviled, cast into a political purgatory the depths of which few have known, the emotional devastation King endured is unfathomable. The question posed in his Riverside oration would have held even deeper meaning: “Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?”

What brought Martin Luther King to this Gethsemane, this prolonged, agonizing moment? One could venture that indeed it was his Riverside anti-Vietnam War speech, or his increasingly trenchant critiques of capitalism, or perhaps his newfound willingness to pronounce the dreaded “S” word – socialism. But the cause of the worst onslaught of his life was more basic than any one event or pronouncement. It was his macroethics, his avid embodiment of a cache of powerful, complimentary ethics that had the potential to radically transform America’s political economy in ways that those who held its levers of power could never abide.

"Macroethics" is a term that looks to economic concepts for its shaping. "Macroeconomics" is concerned with national (and global) economic trends and policies, how policies are formulated and how they impact upon society. Like macroeconomics, macroethics is concerned with the systemic policies and programs that affect society and the body politic. Yet macroethics differs in that it seeks to discern whether policies and laws are meeting people’s needs, attending to the common good, and if they are just or unjust. From a biblical perspective, it is the task of macroethics to judge whether policies and laws and cultural practices treat the people’s needs as holy -- or not.

Fortunately, we do not have to intuit the macroethics that allowed King such social triumphs and damned him to so much emotional pain. In his narration of his famous “kitchen table experience” he himself articulated what those ethics were and how they were enjoined upon him.

As the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, King’s home telephone rang constantly with hateful sworn oaths that an ignominious death was soon to greet him. After many days and nights of venomous threats, he received one that was particularly chilling: In no uncertain terms the caller promised to murder King’s entire household unless he resigned his leadership of the boycott and left town for good. For the 26-year-old King it was finally too much; he decided to cast the mantle of leadership upon other, less fearful shoulders. King relates that as he agonized over how he might remove himself from leadership without appearing to be a coward, be became aware of a voice speaking to him. The voice said, “Martin Luther stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth.”

For years King had engaged in the academic ruminations of philosophical theology. Yet the trajectory of his life from that decisive moment confirms that he did not hear those ethereal directives as abstract philosophical concepts; as a third-generation Christian minister he would have instantly recognized them as among the most foundational, most fundamental of all biblical ethics, all of them hewn into the bedrock of the Hebrew Bible: righteousness (sadiqah), justice (mishpat), truth (‘emet). And because they were in the imperative, it was clear to him that he was commanded to embrace this constellation of ethics as the normative macroethical framework that was to animate his ministry of sacrificial servant leadership until he drew his last breath. Thus it was not simply passion or anger or narrow group interests that placed King upon his Jericho road of service. It was his macroethics, the moral conscience rooted and lodged in the deepest part of him. If the fullness of those macroethics is to be understood, however, it is crucial to plumb the meanings of the principles that comprised it, for they are much more profound than one-term can convey.

“… [S]tand up for justice” (mishpat). Mishpat is the most oft occurring term in the Hebrew Bible, in its various forms appearing more than 400 times. The term yields a variety of meanings, depending on the context, including rights, vindication, deliverance, juridical norm, and judgment in the sense of setting things aright or in proper order. It appears that originally mishpat referred to the restoration of a situation or environment that promoted equity and harmony. Thus mishpat may be understood not only as justice unparsed, but more specifically, as justice that is egalitarian in nature, that is, egalitarian justice, as reflected in Deuteronomy 19:15, for example: “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.” In the biblical witness justice cannot be fully realized, however, unless provision is made for the welfare of the poorest and most vulnerable among us. This obligation is especially incumbent upon those in positions of governance and authority. This is reflected in the characteristic responsibilities of the ideal ruler as they are prescribed in this inaugural psalm: “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people in righteousness, your poor with justice .… May he defend the cause of the poor among the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:1-2, 4). The French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil called this a “supernatural virtue”: “The supernatural virtue of justice,” she explains, “consists of behaving exactly as though there were equality when one is the stronger in an unequal relationship.” This is the meaning that King appropriated as the foundations of his macroethics -- egalitarian justice, the concept and principle that all have equal standing and equal rights in the household of God, and for that reason all should be treated with care and dignity. This accords with King’s oft-stated conviction that all of humanity is imago dei, that all are created in the image of the divine.

“….[S]tand up for righteousness (sadiqah).” Sadiqah is often misunderstood to solely refer to personal piety, but its repeated appearance accompanied by verbs indicates that more than personal piety, sadiqah is practical, an act, something one is and does. Righteous action is doing justice, acting out of justice, establishing justice in the home and in the world. It is no coincidence that mishpat and sadiqah appear together more often in the Hebrew Bible than any other word pairing. The terms have such meaningful consonance that some scholars are moved to translate their coupling as “social justice.” Using this translation for passages in which mishpat and sadiqah are paired can elicit another dimension of meaning. In this way “The Lord loves righteousness and justice” in Psalm 33:5 becomes “The Lord loves social justice.

Personally, however, I find the “social justice” translation wanting because it is not exacting enough. To the utilitarian political mind, social justice can include majoritarian dismissal of minority needs and interests. And if not expressly specified otherwise, social justice in the libertarian mind can easily pivot upon, indeed valorize, selfishness and social irresponsibility. In the final analysis, sadiqah – doing and being righteous – is more than generic social justice. It means striving to put the world into right relationship with the divine will by doing the work of making a just world.

“[S]tand up for truth (‘emet).” Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus, “What is truth?” reflects the Hellenistic conception of truth (aletheia) as a fixed, static property. But the truth that is meant by ‘emet is not a static concept of judgment; again, as with sadiqah, truth is what one does. It is a mode of living; a mode of existence and relationality that is defined by how we relate to the world and those in it. The term ‘emet comes from the verb aman, which means to carry, to support or to make strong. This casts upon the shoulders of those who do truth and live truth, the burden of struggling to ensure that the way of God, the way of justice and righteousness, is neither misrepresented nor deformed to serve unjust ends by person or by nation. The men and women who stand up for truth bear the weight of restoring a world of love and peace, or perhaps creating it. The burden of standing up for the vision of truth that not only assures that a more perfect way can be had but also demands it, is the burden that Martin Luther King chose to stand and to bear. In his Riverside Church denunciation of the Vietnam War he said, “[B]ecause I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them. This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism …. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls ‘enemy.’”

Underlying King’s entire macroethics, giving it coherence and cohesiveness, is that one thing that leavened all things for King, hesed: steadfast, unwavering, prismatic love, the prism through which King refracted all he tried to do in the world. Hesed is one of the most important terms in biblical ethics, occurring in the Hebrew text some 240 times. In his notes for a 1958 sermon, King signaled the unmistakable importance of hesed for him in his description of Micah 6:8 and its citation of divinely preeminent ethics as “one of the high water marks of the Old Testament.” The verse reads, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love hesed and to walk humbly with your God?”

Three basic meanings can be inferred for hesed, all of which must always be in interaction to realize its full transformative power: strength, steadfastness and love. Any understanding of hesed that does not entail all three of these meanings is incomplete, for strength alone is amoral power, love alone can tend toward sentimentality, and steadfastness alone may be construed as simply the willingness to fulfill obligations. With the leavening of love, however, the obligatory dimension of steadfastness becomes a commitment to reciprocal rights and obligations not only with other persons, but also to society as a whole, i.e., to the common good. This means that hesed entails a personal commitment to love and mercy and generosity of goods and spirit in relationships -- personal, social, institutional -- and in the laws, policies and customs that govern our societies. The meaning of hesed can be understood within a range of nuanced meanings, according to the context, but the nature of King’s witness in the world indicates that what it meant to him was the commitment to make the political economy of this society, this nation, more loving, more livable, more humane.

The concept of hesed was informed and intensified for King by the Greek New Testament term agapeAgape embraces the meaning of hesed, which reflects a covenanted relationship of mutual commitment and obligation. However, agape expands that meaning to "unconditional love," a loving relationship without preconditions. King explained it this way: “When we rise to love on the agape level we love [people] not because we like them… we love them because God loves them.” Elsewhere he declared that love guided, overarched and undergirded his life of servant ministry. “I have decided to stick to love,” he said. “For I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems…. He who has love has the key to ultimate reality.” As Simone Weil observed: “The Gospel makes no distinction between the love of our neighbor and justice.”

Thus, King’s embodiment of his macroethics was at once the greatest source of his triumphs and honors, and the greatest cause of his suffering and scorn. It was his macroethics that plotted the path he trod. It was his macroethics that stood him against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that white supremacy still today remorselessly rains upon people of color, at home and abroad. It was his macroethics that compelled him, against the counsel of his every close advisor, to stand in what he called “a vocation of agony” to oppose America’s war of choice in Vietnam and everywhere else military arms spilled blood. And it was the moral demands of his macroethics that bade him to stand against the wiles of the capitalist political economy that, then as now, thrives upon the sweat, tears and actual blood of those who are permitted to share exceedingly little of the wealth their own toils produce. Unflinchingly, he declared,

We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged small-hearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that … they are unmoved by suffering, poverty-stricken humanity.

“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and racism” he concluded, because its acceptance of loveless, exploitive, often deadly practices as normative for human society offended the very justice of God: its dog-eat-dog competition; its inherent structural inequality; its valuation of profits over the needs and welfare of humanity; its refusal to acknowledge anything close to a common good; its predisposition to unfairness and exploitation of workers; its ongoing assault on family life and structures by the demands of technocracy; and its fundamental tendency to maintain and continually magnify the wealth gap between the haves and the have-nots. Said King, “The trouble is that we live in a failed system. Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources... [A] small privileged few are rich beyond conscience and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level.”

Thus, King struggled so mightily to loosen the grip of capitalist structures and processes because he was convinced that if left unchecked they spelled doom, morally and materially, for the prophetic vision of a just, loving world. “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people,” he intoned, “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

But King’s macroethical vision for the world was not only critical and analytic, it was also prescriptive. “The time has come,” he said, “for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.” His prescription for the inequities and excesses of America’s capitalist political economy was a notably courageous one, especially in the wake of McCarthyism and the Red Scare: He called for implementation of specific democratic socialist policies crafted to ameliorate the unconscionable poverty in this land of plenty, if not a transformation to a democratic socialist political economy in toto. “Maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.” The democratic socialist policy measures he proposed included a guaranteed minimum income for all, regardless of their ability to work; a guaranteed living wage and employment for all who were able to work; and universal healthcare because, he said, “God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe ‘enough and to spare’ for that purpose.” Borrowing a concept from philosopher Josiah Royce, King called his vision of a political economy founded on his macroethical vision the Beloved Community, a society, indeed a world, governed by justice, love, righteousness and honesty. King did not live long enough to articulate it further.

If “throne” is understood as “government,” and “ruler” read as “ruling body” or “elected officials,” the ultimate goal of King’s macroethical vision for America mirrors the prophetic hope of Isaiah: “A throne (government) shall be established in hesed (steadfast love)… and on it shall sit in ‘emet (honesty, truthfulness) a ruler (elected officials) who seeks mishpat (egalitarian justice) and is swift to do sadiqah (put justice into action)” (Isaiah 16:5). This is the dream for which King lived and the hope for which he died.

Thus, from his deep and passionate anchoring in biblical faith came King’s selfless love for humanity; his heightened sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice; and his uncompromising self-identification with the poorest and most vulnerable of humanity:

I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out …. This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way…. If it means dying for them, I’m going that way.

King’s servant leadership stands as a monument of inspiration for all people of good will. Yet it is also as an indictment of those who would claim the glory of his mantle without the weight of his macroethical conscience. That Martin Luther King Jr., a young man dead for his beliefs before the age of 40, engaged in such informed social analysis and proposed such revolutionary structural changes in America’s less than just political economy, presents a scathing censure of the visionless and too often unloving “leaders” today who cloak their “leadership” in ill-fitted biblical garments. A poignant refrain asks:

Can you tell me, holy roller,

Are you standing like a soldier?

Are you standing for everything you talk about *

*From “Jesus Children of America,” by Stevie Wonder.

A divine voice told Martin Luther King to stand and embrace his mission to bring to America greater justice, righteousness, honesty and love. And stand he did, with such courage and faith that when we survey the social landscape of our nation today, even with all its chaos and imperfections, we can see Martin Luther King Jr., through it all, standing yet.

By Obery M. Hendricks

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