This line from Clergy and Laity Concerned in 1967, was the inspiration for much Martin Luther King, Jr.'s powerful speech from the Riverside Church, "Beyond Vietnam" given a year and day before he was assassinated (listen to this hour long speech, his voice is meant to be heard not simply read). I usually go back to that speech for inspiration to commemorate his birth, as it was the one wherein he comes out so strongly against the Vietnamese War. At the time of this speech I was mostly oblivious as I was excited about going off to college in the Fall, only lightly aware of the possibility that I could be sent into that quagmire.
Early in the speech, King discusses the inner turmoil of breaking the silence
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. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem
as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are
always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have
found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must
speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our
limited vision, but we must speak.
I've come to feel that our American society and institutions have unwittingly silenced us with our own 'bread and circuses' of popular culture and spectator sports. As a society, we commit much of our time to these appeasements that steal our attention and energy to wrestle with the challenges facing us in our communities and with the earth community we share this sphere with. We have become the Silent. Our involvement in the political process that shapes our lives is essentially nil, beyond the 60-70% of us who may cast vote every couple of years. Donations to charities are declining.The world is getting more crowded. No one nation can control events. Transnational corporations have more power than many poorer nation states. And the ecological integrity that we've taken for granted and has sustained us since we stood up on two feet is showing signs of unraveling.
King's insights from this speech are useful here as well.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead
the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death
wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of
peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep
us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have
fashioned it into a brotherhood...
We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are
confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of
life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination
is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and
dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not
remain at flood -- it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her
passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached
bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic
words, "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully
records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: "The
moving finger writes, and having writ moves on."
One can hope that President Obama's words today to address climate change and inequality might inspire more of us to break our own silence, and work to see King's dream fulfilled - peace and justice for all on a healthy planet.