Forty three years ago today, Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis Tennessee. Forty four years ago today, he gave speech in New York City that marked his decisive turn toward decrying militarism, which he named one of the three “isms” of evil, alongside racism and materialism. In the speech, he said that “A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war… This way of settling differences is not just… of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.”
Martin’s namesake, Martin Luther, was named after Martin of Tours, the patron saint of soldiers and chaplains. It should not surprise us that the great American prophet shares a spiritual genealogy with the soldier that told the most powerful man in the known world that, as a soldier of Christ, he could not be a part of the empire’s bloodshed.
Today soldiers are bringing home the wounds of war in massive numbers. In hours, they go from a world where the violence is external and obvious, to a totally different world, where the war is waged internally. The spiritual stowaways of the Enemy have a way of wreaking havoc and hell in ways against which their family, their school, and the church have no weapons. Because we here at “home” are not equipped to fight for those who have fought for us, we find very good reasons to do nothing. Dr. King, in his speech in New York, made that case that “silence is betrayal,” that inactivity cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.
Jesus told Peter that “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” What he didn’t explain is that he didn’t only mean that violent people could expect to die by the violent means of others. Jesus also surely knew that to die by the sword would even include falling on one’s own. As a friend has written before, “violence is suicidal”; agents of violence often become the victim of moral ambiguity, self-condemnation, and, worst of all, societal apathy. Veterans and soldiers have the highest suicide rate of any recorded demographic in our nation’s entire recorded history. I wonder if the prophet was being optimistic, if in fact silence is not merely betrayal, but fratricide.
I’ve been in school now for a few years. Friends pass me in the hallways, see me in class, and we hang out on the weekends. I often have to remind them how their experience of education is fundamentally different from my own. I know people who have died trying to get to the very place my friends and I occupy right now.
For example, during orientation last year, a campus psychiatrist was describing the doctor-patient confidentiality his office abides by, he read off a litany of things that you could tell your counselor that would not be shared; “that you are cheating on your spouse, you cheated on a test… you can even tell them that you’ve killed someone.”
This was good for me to know, since I spent 14 months in an infantry platoon in Iraq. As an artilleryman, there is a significant measure of uncertainty for me, but there is a good chance I hurt or killed people, guilty or not. But almost 200 of my classmates thought the psychiatrist was joking. They laughed. I bit my tongue.
Do not misunderstand me; I know my classmates did not have a single ounce of ill intention. Had they known the confusing and painful complexity of what I was (and am) going through, they probably would have reacted differently. The problem is that there is a huge gap between our nation’s service members and the general population, between which there is a big margin for error.
It’s not that society, or my school, does not want to care, they don’t know how to care. They sometimes see the moral and social challenge that martial service poses, and they don’t want to mess it up. I know exactly what this feels like – in combat, literally EVERY decision carried with it the risk of our friends dying right beside us. The challenge is daunting, then and now, but we need to stop giving ourselves reasons to do nothing. Silence, after all, is betrayal, and speaking up, like Martin did, is a matter of life and death. Not just our own, but those who stand poised above their own swords, just waiting for the Enemy to give them a reason to fall.
Silence cannot be reconciled to wisdom, justice and love. We are Christ’s body, Jesus is with us, our Emmanuel. Though our hearts are weak with uncertainty and fear, though our voices shake, may His words speak through us. Through Christ, we can shatter fear with love, driving the Enemy from his strongholds in our siblings’ souls.
**Originally published here; http://sojo.net/blogs/2011/04/04/martin-luther-king-jr-and-silent-betrayal-our-veterans