Yesterday morning I attended the Sunday service of the historic Riverside Church in New York City. On the bulletin the church describes itself as "interdenomination, interracial, international, open, affirming, and welcoming." It is affiliated with both the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A. and the United Church of Christ. Riverside has had a number of well known pastors, such as Rev. Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick )(1930-1946), Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (1977-1987) and most recently Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Jr. (1989-2007). At the service I attended they were welcoming their new pastor Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton.
It just happened to be their Stewardship Sunday, so the theme of the service was on abundance and giving. I wanted to stay for the service, but had some dread about remaining for a tradition Stewardship Sunday. Even though Stewardship was the theme, social justice, a theme that has rang loud and clear from the church's pulpit for many years, could still be heard echoing throughout the service. Peace and social justice were not overwhelmed by Sunday's theme, the extravagance of the cathedral and its many stained glass windows or the beautiful sounds of a visiting choir and orchestra from Sweden. I still heard the words of justice and ring out in the prayers, litanies, ministries, hymns, and preaching.
I was reminded of the words of another preacher whose voice rang out loud like a bell for justice and peace from the pulpit of Riverside---Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His address was delivered at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned on April 4, 1967, exactly a year before his assasination. His message was entitled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence." His speech was written by Dr. Vincent Harding, who I have had the pleasure to know since 2003, MLK's close friend. It was a historic address in which for the first time he linked the Vietnam War and the Southern Freedom movement. King preached at Riverside:
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: "Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?" "Peace and civil rights don't mix," they say. "Aren't you hurting the cause of your people?" they ask. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling.
King went out to point out that his was a vocation of peacemaking, which meant he had to "love his enemies":
But even if it were not present, I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men (sic) -- for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?
At the end of his address he outlined a trinity of injustices that must be opposed:
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.
King's Vietnam speech at Riverside Church is one that we should all revisit, particularly in the context of the Iraq War, the costs of our military industrial complex, the widening gap between the rich and poor, and the hidden agenda of race in the current presidential campaign and upcoming elections. I thought of heard King's voice still echoing down by the Riverside.