On April 4, 1967—forty-nine years ago—Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed an audience at the Riverside Church in New York City. The title of the address was “Beyond Vietnam” which can be found in a collection of King’s speeches entitled A Call to Conscience edited by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard.
King was reluctant to speak about the Vietnam War. As a public theologian, his primary efforts focused on poverty, inequality, racial equality, and equal rights for the poor—primarily women and children. It was only when King came to terms with the fact that the economic cost of the war jeopardized the domestic programs “…that were important to his special constituency,” according to Senator George McGovern, that King became part of the growing anti-war chorus.
What’s most interesting about this speech, from my perspective at least, is not King’s moral argument against the war. Rather, the lines that captured my attention and, honestly, keep my attention, come near the very beginning:
“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’m captured by these words, particularly at a time in our public discourse when it sometimes seems to be more about the agony created by words rather than the vocation of agony thrust upon those who dare speak words into the public square. Furthermore, even while King speaks of a vocation (Latin: to call as from God) of agony he reminds himself—and those who will follow in his speaking—that we “…must speak with the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision… .”
In other words, even when we do muster the courage to speak into the public square, do so with the very clear understanding that the words we speak are not the final word, but a passionate word emanating from our very limited point of view. The words we speak into the public square are not the final word. They're limited by our point of view. Click To Tweet
With that being said, how do we most constructively provide leadership in our own sphere of influence? How do we provide leadership in our homes, or our places of work and worship? How do we offer an insightful, hopeful, inspiring word when bombast or hyperbole generates the headline?
My guess is that if Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, he would identify with the challenge of leadership, and the difficulty that leadership brings, specifically when we dare to offer words into the public square. It is “…a vocation of agony,” after all. But I believe that he would also remind us to temper the passion and rhetoric of our fiery words with more than a little humility because, as human beings, we’re only able to see part of the whole picture before us. He called this “…our limited vision.”
He would tell us that we live in a time of choosing: we can choose to speak words that are angry and full of vitriol, playing to the very worst of our human emotions, or we can choose to bear the burden of speaking words into the public square that are penetrating—but prefaced with humility. We can choose to speak words that are full of vitriol, or we can choose to use words that are prefaced with humility Click To Tweet
No one today is reading the speeches of Senator Joseph McCarthy and, yet, forty-nine years later, we remember the words of a man who was assassinated exactly one year after delivering his “Beyond Vietnam” speech while he defended the dignity of sanitation workers who earned $1.08 per hour.