Monday, March 22, 2010

Revising MLK Day

Revolutionizing Values; Notes on MLK, Oratory and Rhetoric

In Dunnville a super-church was just built and is opening. They distributed a flyer inviting everybody to an open house. At the top is the following quotation from the Bible,

"Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders will have toiled in vain. Unless the Lord keeps watch over a city, in vain the watchman stands on guard." (Ps 127:1, NEB)

This describes the two basic things human beings do, and how both depend upon the confirmation of God. All the activity of us mortals boils down to either building or protecting, making or preserving. The destructive part of the creative process is left over to the contingent world, to God, or Shiva, or whatever you want to call Him.

This duality is reflected in the commonwealth of Baha'u'llah. In the Aqdas, He took power away from the learned and handed it off to the people. As compensation, He gave the learned the gift of indirect influence, and He channelled this influence into those two streams: propagation and protection. He explained that the learned have a choice between words of fire and words of milk, and admonished them to choose words of milk, kind, gentle, nurturing words.

Thus, most of what you hear from one who is truly learned in Baha will be uplifting, inspiring, expansive. I can see them being accused, one day, of being mealy mouthed and wishy-washy, but far better than, heaven forbid, being accused of being a fiery orator.


One of my favourite podcasts consists of readings of great speeches of history -- and by history they mean American history. What about famous speeches from around the world? Is nobody talking on this level? Kant was right, we need a cosmopolitan history, a history of the world, and in order to write such a history we will surely need a planetary speaker's circuit. We have a world championship in the most obscure sports, but no world association of lecturers and debaters.

Such a group should be formed to choose the best orators and send them on tours to major capitals around the planet. As it is now, judging by the powerful oratory you can listen to in this podcast, the force, skill and wisdom of the best speakers is dissipated as soon as it crosses a national border. In order for there to be a future world government, we must first build up a world constituency.

The latest podcast consists of a late speech of Martin Luther King where he takes a position against the war in Vietnam. What a glorious tradition of stirring oratory people of African descent have given the world! And MLK was among the greatest of them all. The most interesting part of this speech is where, having dismissed in great detail any claim to justice or even sense that the Vietnam war may have had, King turns to what he thinks should happen now, what he calls a "Revolution of Values."

He points out that America clings to death rather than life, to hate more than love. "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." Although America started off at the forefront of the revolutionary changes of modernity, of late it had become reactionary.

"It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries."

The solution is an about-face, a switch back to the ways of loving thy neighbour.

"I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values ... [that will] cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies."

Although in recent years Christian leaders in America have identified their the rich and the right, MLK asserts the liberal leanings of his faith firmly and unequivocally:

"Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when `every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.' ... Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate."

Since MLK made this stirring declaration, little has been done to formally channel his idealism. In 1985, his widow Loretta King, wrote leaders and heads of religious groups (including the Universal House of Justice) and suggested that there be a "Martin Luther King Day," to be celebrated on the third Monday in January. She saw this as a sort of truce day, a chance for groups around the world to stop violent conflict and to turn to love.

It seems to me that MLK Day would be a good time to coordinate a "world cup of oratory." Have the best speakers compete all year long in giving speeches about peace, how to end violence and all the values that MLK stood for. Then have the champions address the world in a televised event similar to the Oscars or the World Cup. Let MLK have the last word, again from that same, fateful address known as his "Vietnam speech."

"A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept -- so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force -- has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man."


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