King’s commitment to representing the God-given dignity of human life

The religious conservatives’ opposition to the civil rights nature of Rev. Dr. King’s ministry also came into focus during the final years of his life, when he embraced a broader set of issues beyond the civil rights movement’s priorities. Many of his fellow civil rights activists abandoned his efforts, thinking they were harmful, a kind of “mission creep” beyond civil rights. One of the most controversial speeches of King’s entire  ministry came not in the South nor about the treatment of black Americans, but at Riverside Church in New York City as he spoke out against the Vietnam War:

As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1954. And I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the brotherhood of man. This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances.

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 – 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?”

King’s commitment to representing the God-given dignity of human life transcended national borders. King’s opposition to the Vietnam War was rooted not just in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the United Nations in 1948) but in his identity as a follower of Jesus. His Christian commitment to not valuing American lives or the interests of the United States over people’s lives in other countries was just as radical an idea as the commitment to racial justice that King advocated for in the United States.

From “Just Faith: Reclaiming Progressive Christianity” by Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons – Broadleaf Books

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