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Martin Luther King, Jr. and the War on Terror

By January 16, 2007 No Comments

by Hak Joon Lee

Editors’ Note: Contributing editor Hak Joon Lee is associate professor of ethics and community at New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He is also the author of the recently released book We Will Get to the Promised Land: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Communal-Political Spirituality(Pilgrim Press, 2006). This excerpt is reprinted by permission and continues Perspectives’ recent look at issues surrounding the war on terror, the war in Iraq, and related subjects.

From the Introduction

Although many books have already been written on King, and the number of works on him keeps growing, the study of King’s spirituality has been largely ignored by those engaged in King scholarship.To the Promised LandOften the study of his spirituality is taken for granted or subsumed under the study of his theology, ethics, social philosophy, or biography. Yet, the study of King’s spirituality is different from these disciplinary approaches because it is larger than these categories. Spirituality is concerned with the total disposition and the lived quality of his person and ministry. Therefore, the study of spirituality offers a coherent and comprehensive hermeneutical angle for understanding his identity and life–his thoughts, values, yearnings, and struggles, in their mutual connections and intersections.

The study of King through spirituality is congruent with King’s own identity. King was a highly religious and spiritual person. At his core, King was not primarily a civil rights leader, a theologian, or a movement organizer; primarily he was an African American pastor who felt that he was called by God for a special task. His wife Coretta Scott King endorses this perspective: “Martin was a third-generation Christian minister, and this was the moral and spiritual foundation and vital center of the faith that empowered his leadership.”1

The study of King’s spirituality is a response to a contextual demand. King has much to offer us today, particularly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, when there is so much cultural confusion and misunderstanding on the meaning and purpose of spirituality. A popular cultural discourse of spirituality in the West is predominantly private and therapeutic in nature, with a pretense to integration often in utter indifference to public issues and social concerns. In contrast to this surge of a private spirituality, one also sees a diametrically opposite expression of spirituality today–the spread of religiously motivated violence and terrorism. As the suicide bombings and massacre of civilians in the Middle East, abortion clinic bombings, and other violent incidents in the United States demonstrate, violence is committed more often than not by seemingly highly devoted– many even characterize them as fanatical–religious persons or groups. They use violence against civilians as a means to publicly express their religious and political statements.

This bipolar expression of spirituality forces us to ask: How can one overcome the polarization of spirituality–the private spirituality that is indifferent to public affairs vs. the public spirituality that advocates violence and hatred? Is there an authentic form of spirituality that promotes peace and justice in a global society without disregarding a personal spiritual dimension? King offers us significant insight and inspiration in answer to these questions.

The U.S. War on Terror

Because King’s spirituality is such a contrast and alternative to that of religious fundamentalists, what would he say about the War on Terror? King’s critique of the Vietnam War has striking prophetic value and relevance for us in understanding the immoral nature of the U.S. War on Iraq. Although the George W. Bush administration claims that the U.S. War on Terror is a response to religious terrorism, there are dangerous similarities of underlying logic and dynamics between the two. King’s critique of the Vietnam War provides clues and insights to substantiate this claim. A connection can be made between King’s argument against the Vietnam War and the argument he might have made against the current War on Iraq based on the idea of U.S. supremacy.

U.S. Supremacy

U.S. supremacy pursues economic, military, and cultural hegemony over the world. Supremacy is based on the belief that one or one’s group has superiority rather than equality in human relationships. It is the claim that “my race or my nation is superior to yours.” Supremacy always attempts to impose its views, visions, and values upon others. In times of peace, U.S. supremacy is expressed in a benefactor-to-beneficiary relationship. In times of war or crisis, however, it is expressed in the subjugation and domination of others (e.g., the Japanese internment in the United States during World War II, and the current racial profiling of Arab-Americans).

The characteristic of supremacy represents the rejection of human sanctity and interdependence. By striving toward domination, supremacy inculcates segregation and division among people. Supremacists refuse to treat other human beings as equal to themselves. U.S. supremacy subtly values the lives of U.S. citizens, whites in particular, more than those of others. It does not respect the universality of basic human rights and often treats other human beings as necessary collateral damage in the process of achieving its goal.

King, in his critique of the Vietnam War, saw the connection between white supremacy in the South and U.S. military supremacy in Vietnam: both treated people of color as subhuman. The U.S. supremacy in Vietnam was in continuity with the same white supremacist attitudes and ethos that King had experienced in the South in its blatant form, and the white backlash in the North in its subtler form. He realized that this supremacist value per vaded the entire fabric of U.S. institutions. It was out of this radical awareness that he repeatedly called for a reconstruction of the entire society. The U.S. War on Terror, in its current form, is a result of the supremacist policy of the Bush government. From the beginning, the policies of the Bush administration have been unilateral and anti-community in many aspects. It withdrew U.S. support for the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the International Court on War Crimes, among other international agreements and laws. International laws, treaties, and agreements are considered to be useful to the extent that they support U.S. interests and domination. U.S. supremacy is expressed in foreign policy by the assertion of military power and the unilateralism epitomized in the Bush doctrine of preemptive strike, a policy that permits the use of violence when there is merely some suspicion of another nation’s intentions. For supremacists, the U.S. represents the best values of humanity, equating universal morality with the American way of life. Supremacists claim that those who are against them are wrong because they alone are right. George Bush declared, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”2

The events of 9/11 were a watershed, as supremacist elements were consequently unleashed in foreign policies in the name of security and patriotism.

  Those ominous supremacist elements hidden within the U.S. soul, which King pointed out in the wake of his criticism of the Vietnam War, have now been unleashed in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.  Those ominous supremacist elements hidden within the U.S. soul, which King pointed out in the wake of his criticism of the Vietnam War, have now been unleashed in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. The War on Iraq was the public expression of U.S. supremacy. 9/11 gave a pretext to invade Iraq by provoking the supremacist ethos within the U.S. collective psyche. Our supremacy ethos, which sanctifies violence, squelched the debate on Iraq. Fostering fear by linking terrorism with weapons of mass destruction, the Bush government exploited 9/11 to pursue U.S. supremacy by military means.This supremacist element cannot be more clearly evidenced than by our treatment of the detainees and prisoners from this War on Terror, especially in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Since the invasion of Afghanistan, thousands of people have been detained by the United States. Prisoners under our control, including those who may be innocent, are imprisoned and held without due process. Evidence proves that they are routinely humiliated sexually and tortured; some are even killed. Released government documents show that the U.S. government has sanctioned interrogation techniques and methods that violate the UN Convention against Torture. Many detainees and prisoners are routinely denied their access to lawyers and families. Some detainees are secretly transferred to other countries for torture and ill treatment. Hundreds of detainees continue to be held without charge or trial, and many have died already in U.S. custody.

Such criminal behavior demeans not only those victims but also our nation and our common humanity. Although these abuses, tortures, and killings are squarely against the core constitutional values of our nation and humanity, there has been no major public outcry against this practice, not to mention a persistent lack of accountability among high governmental officials and politicians who are responsible for these policies. Such apathy and callousness reflect the state of our spirituality, the soul of our nation, as we elect and empower the leaders who formulate and enact these policies. There is clearly a supremacist streak in those political extremists who took over the political center, planting a flag camouflaged in the name of traditional moral values, security, and patriotism after 9/11. Our arrogance continuously misreads moral situations and misleads our policies.


The reaction of our society to the 9/11 tragedy shows the spiritual poverty and immaturity of our nation. According to King, as with an individual, the character of a nation is tested in times of crisis. Rather than reflect, our nation reacted in arrogance, seeking revenge. In anger, fear, and hurtful pride, we have become a victim-turned-perpetrator.

Although tragedies, such as the 9/11 incident, may offer us a rare opportunity to see our basic weaknesses and moral fallacies, we allowed ourselves to be misled by the Bush government. MLK, courtesy of RNSThere was no serious analysis of a larger cause and effect of 9/11, such as a review of our foreign policy in the Middle East, the history of colonialism, the economic exploitation of other countries, ecological destruction, and the impact of our cultural products (e.g., Hollywood movies, videos, and the mass media) on the lives of others.

King’s example is instructive in this regard. During his campaign against the Vietnam War, King even demanded that the nation examine historical and social realities from the “enemy’s point of view.” King’s comments on North Vietnam apply to our situation vis-a-vis the War on Terrorism:

Surely we must understand their feelings even if we do not condone their actions….Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves, for from his view, we may indeed see the basic weakness of our own condition. And if we are mature we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the Opposition.3

In light of King’s wisdom, we have to ask, why do many average Muslims hate us? Why did the Middle East cheer terrorists? We cannot dismiss them simply as “evil” or claim they hate us because of our freedom and democracy. Instead, we have to examine our culpability in contributing to the injustice in the Middle East. Many Muslims point to U.S. control and domination in the Middle East, a narrow pursuit of our national interest at the expense of theirs, as the main cause for their hatred and militancy against the United States. The history of Western colonialism in the Middle East, the U.S. support of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East (such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia), the disdain for their ways of life and culture, the U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine: all these elements add fuel to such toxic attitudes.

  It was King’s conviction that world peace was possible only when the fundamental interdependence, reciprocity, and equality of humanity are radically affirmed.  As a nation, we need to confront the undeniable fact that our almost unconditional support of Israel is another source of the Muslim and other Middle Eastern discontent, thus providing the infesting ground for the rise of religious terrorism. The Israeli and Palestinian con- flict is more than a local conflict. Our attitude toward Israel greatly influences the Middle Eastern, and in particular the Muslim, understanding of the fairness of U.S. policy.Collective paranoia following the 9/11 event suspended all critical, reflective thinking and criticism. The Bush government has exploited this fear to silence its critics. As critics of the war in Vietnam were vilified by the Johnson government as traitors, enemies of our soldiers, and/or communists, so critics of the War on Iraq are regarded as unpatriotic or anti-United States. It is obvious that democratic values and ideals are undermined when dissention is suppressed, secrecy prevails over openness, and the fallibility of governmental policies is simply not open for discussion.

The fallout from the 9/11 event made it difficult to think, talk, and live in terms of a common humanity. Civil liberties of citizens, especially Arab-Americans, are severely violated through racial profiling and detention without trial for unlimited periods of time. Patriotism and nationalism discourage and undermine both ecumenical spirit and human solidarity as a whole. Tied with implicit Christian theocracy, a jingoistic form of civil religious spirituality is pervasive in this cultural milieu of patriotism and nationalism. The War on Terror is damaging our long-term national interest and any possibility for global peace. U.S. unilateralism and the War on Iraq, which neglected and violated international laws and agreements, seriously weakened the United Nations and undermined global peace. It is self-contradictory to believe that one can implant freedom and democracy by military invasion. If our goal is democracy and global peace, the means to pursue such noble goals should be commensurate with it, such as international cooperation and dialogue.

Bush’s War on Terror has generated more terrorists. It has promulgated more violence and distrust. The War on Iraq has claimed many innocent lives, including women and children, more already than the tragedy of 9/11. Our inhumane treatment of prisoners and detainees has become a new source of the rising tide of anger and anti-U.S. sentiments. The Guantanamo militar y camp and Abu Ghraib prison have become symbols of U.S. imperial supremacy. They are inf laming world opinions against us, and providing recruitment energy for terrorists. The United States, usurping all moral support in the aftermath of the 9/11 incident, is now one of the most disliked nations. We are regarded, even by our own allies, as a rogue superpower. We cannot win the War on Terror by terrorizing others, and further terrorizing ourselves with fear.

In the economic realm, the War on Iraq is taking away valuable resources from the poor and social programs. At the end of 2005, our nation had spent more than 200 billion dollars on Iraq when our entire foreign aid budget for 2002 was 10 billion dollars. It is painful to witness how precious resources, which are already limited, are being wasted on unnecessary and unjustifiable warfare. The cost of the Iraqi war is high; it has robbed the poor of essential social services–and some of those poor are the dying or injured soldiers currently overseas.

The War on Iraq has fattened the military-industrial complex. King, citing President Eisenhower, frequently warned about the rise of the military-industrial complex in the United States; unfortunately, the alliance among the state, military, and big business is now a reality. The neo-conser vatives, who advocated greater militar y spending and U.S. global supremacy, were closely associated with the defense and oil industries.4 Dick Cheney was a former CEO of Halliburton, an oil company that received lucrative contracts in Iraq without even making bids.

The War on Terror in general, and the War on Iraq in particular, pose several questions for the soul of the nation. What happened to our sense of honor, human decency, and idealism as a nation and a people? The Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prison abuse, tortures, and murders are symptoms of the malaise within the soul of the nation. As King did at the time of the Vietnam War, we feel an unspeakable, deep sorrow for and disappointment in our nation because it has given up decency, human rights, and justice in exchange for arrogance, fear, and brutality.

It is questionable whether a military supremacist policy can be effective in a highly interdependent society like ours. In an increasingly interdependent society, various forms of international pressures can be more effective in promoting justice than military interventions. The cases of South Africa, Libya, and Iraq show that international sanctions under U.N. supervision can work effectively to bring forth the intended changes in international relationships without resorting to military invasions. In the case of Iraq, as a postwar discover y disclosed, the United Nations arms inspections and international economic sanctions were found to be working far more effectively than once imagined.

It was King’s conviction that world peace was possible only when the fundamental interdependence, reciprocity, and equality of humanity are radically affirmed.5 We are so interdependent that even the success of our struggle against terrorism depends on the support of the peoples of other nations where terrorists operate. A lienating them makes the task of overcoming terrorism not just difficult but practically impossible. The solution to the problem is not in violence and revenge, but in dialogue and the removal of injustice. King’s critique of U.S. supremacy at the time of the Vietnam War is telling and relevant for us today to examine the War on Iraq. He noted,

God did not appoint America to be the policemen of the whole world. And America must recognize that she has not the capacity nor the power nor has she earned the moral right to be an American power, an Asian power, an Atlantic power and a South American power. And who is America to tell people what government they must choose? America is still following this terrible posture of trying to force her will down the throats of other people. We have got to tell America this in no uncertain terms. If we don’t tell her and if America doesn’t do something about it, she is going to destroy herself by the misuse of her own power.6

In order to check the rise and spread of religious terrorism, the removal of injustice is crucial for the de-fanaticization of religion. The removal of these barriers to justice requires the unyielding political engagement of religious communities. Supremacist interest and value cannot be transformed without a radical redistribution of economic and political power, because supremacy was based on and maintained by the monopoly or hegemonic control of power and privileges. Just peace is more important than just war. Justice requires just peace. King paid necessary attention to the root causes of conflicts, especially in developing countries. He noted,

The maintenance of peace requires the promotion of justice and for almost seventy-five percent of the world’s population, justice requires development. When progress and development are neglected, conflict is inevitable. We of the West must come to see that the so-called wars of liberation which loom on the world horizon are attempts of the people of under-developed nations to find freedom from hunger, disease and exploitation.7

King’s ecumenical spirituality challenges us in times of violence and terror.

Religious communities should promote nonviolence. Official religious and institutional advocacy of violence is too dangerous and stands against a general human spiritual quest, besides contradicting the teaching and wisdom of major religions. It is a challenge for each religious community to condemn and isolate this theocratic element within its own community. Conscientious individuals and religious communities need to stand up for prophetic ministries by refusing to be bound by parochial allegiances.8

The promotion of nonviolent spirituality is important because it not only cuts the vicious cycle of violence, but also prevents victims from turning into perpetrators. As violence comes out of a violent spirit, the former cannot be uprooted without the removal of the latter. As King so persuasively advocated, there can be no genuine global peace and justice without the affirmation of the sanctity and solidarity of all human beings. From his perspective, when we give up any redeeming possibility of others, we are giving up a pa rt of our own humanity.

We cannot rely on our military might alone to overcome the violence of terrorism. A reckless war, no matter how shocking and awesome its military power may be, cannot remove the roots of hatred; rather, it intensifies enmity, resentment, and bitterness. While acknowledging the fact that, historically, war has sometimes served as a negative good by preventing the spread of an evil force, King proposed nonviolent conflict resolution as an alternative to war. Conflicts must be resolved through dialogue and fair negotiation, and other nonviolent means. He emphasized dialogue over monologue in discussion of the common problems of the world. There is a threat to international peace when nations believe that they can sur vive alone, without others, and therefore pursue the way of monologue rather than dialogue.9 In the last years of his life, King attempted to develop an all-encompassing philosophy of peace from his theor y of nonviolent resistance. In pursuing his vision of the beloved community on a global level, he sought the application of nonviolence to international problems through a massive international coalition against injustice.10


1Coretta King, “Foreword,” in Martin Luther King, Jr., Spirit-led Prophet: A Biography, by R ichard Deats (New York: New City Press, 2000 ), 9.
2George W. Bush, Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, September 20, 2001, http://w w w.whitehouse. gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html.
3King, “A Paper on Vietnam,” (The King Center A rchives, 30 April 1967), 1.
4George Soros, The Bubble of American Supremacy: Correcting the Misuse of American Power (New York: Public A ffairs, 2004), 180.
5King noticed, “I also think peace is jeopardized by extreme nationalists who fail to see that in the world today we cannot live alone, that all the nations of the world are interdependent” (King, “Inter view on World Peace,” Redbook Magazine (The King Center A rchives, 5 November 1964), 2).
6King, “Speech at the Staff Retreat of SCLC,” Penn Center, Frogmore, S.C. (The King Center Archives, May 1967), 25-26.
7King, “Statement at Pacem in Terris II Convocation,” Geneva, Switzerland (The King Center Archives, 28-31 May 1967), 2.
8Lewis V. Baldwin, Toward the Beloved Community: Martin Luther King, Jr. and South Africa. (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1995), 177.
9King, “Interview on World Peace,” 4; emphasis is his.
10Martin Luther, King, Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience (New York:Harper & Row, 1967), 63.