It is 50 years since the greatest social justice prophet of our time, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. One year earlier, on April 4, 1967, he gave a powerful and controversial speech about the Vietnam war that linked the civil rights struggle and the anti-war movement.
In this speech at Riverside Church titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” King addressed the spiritual danger a nation faces when it does not use its ample resources for human flourishing. Two quotes stand out:
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom. “
“We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
This last phrase about “those who possess power without compassion, might without morality and strength without sight” echoes the words of Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slobodka about the reason for Sodom’s downfall. In a short essay called, “The Idea of Chessed in the Torah,” (Ohr HaTzafun p.110) he quotes Ezekiel:
Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: Arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.” (Ezekiel 16: 49).
The Alter explains that:
The prophet says that the claim against Sodom is that, despite their great material wealth and tranquil situation they did not support the poor and needy. That is to say that relative to their material and political situation they did not fulfill their obligation to support the poor. We can infer from this that even if they did support the poor, but not at the level corresponding to their own wealth and stability, they would be considered wicked and fitting to be overturned and destroyed. Indeed, rabbinic literature is clear that the people of Sodom were far from Chessed and Tzedakah, but Ezekiel emphasizes that it was this particular perversion – that they did not support the poor according to their ability – that led to their destruction from the world.
I shudder as I write this from the richest nation the earth has ever seen. Does the United States support the poor and needy in accordance with its financial ability? The answer is obvious. On this 50th commemoration of the assassination of Dr. King let’s let his warning about our future pierce our hearts and strengthen us to keep up our work building the, as yet, elusive beloved community.
Here is his speech, in full: https://www.youtube.com/watch?