01/18/2011 10:28 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Stop 'Pimping' the Legacy of Dr. King

It was brought to my attention today that an official in our Defense Department had delivered a speech last week proclaiming that if Martin Luther King, Jr., were alive he would understand why the United States is at war in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places in pursuit of terrorists.

According to the Department of Defense's website:

Jeh C. Johnson, the Defense Department's general counsel, said that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation's military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack...

In King's last speech in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968 -- the night before he died -- King evoked the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, Johnson noted.

According to the parable, a traveler was beaten and robbed and left for dead. Two other travelers passed the man as he lay alongside the road -- one was a priest. Both ignored the man and continued on their way. Finally, a Samaritan traveling the road showed compassion and took the stranger to an inn and saw to his care.

In his speech, King drew a parallel between those who passed by the man on the road and those in Memphis who at the time hesitated to help striking sanitation workers because they feared for their own jobs.

Johnson compared today's troops to the Samaritan, who chose to help instead of taking an easier path.

"I draw the parallel to our own servicemen and women deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, away from the comfort of conventional jobs, their families and their homes," Johnson said.

Customarily, I would read and leave such comments alone. But, somehow, during the same time period when our nation is commemorating the 82nd birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., publication of this statement by our Department of Defense cannot stand unaddressed. It is obscene.

As New York Senator Patrick Moynihan once said, "everyone is entitled to their own opinion; but not their own set of facts."

There is no "nice" way to say what must be said in response to Mr. Jeh Johnson's statement about Dr. King in support of our war in Iraq and Afghanistan: It is equivalent to blasphemy and an immoral assault on Dr. King's legacy and commitment to nonviolence. What is especially offensive it that an official at the Department of Defense would seek to "pimp" this legacy on the occasion of our nation's 25th anniversary commemorating Dr. King's birthday as a national holiday.

In my 2008 book, What Would Martin Say? written before there was confirmation that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, I painstakingly wrote that Dr. King would never support preemptive war. In a blog posted after President Obama went to Norway to accept this Nobel Peace Prize, I again dissented with Obama's rationalization of "just wars" as being consistent with what Dr. King might have said under our then prevailing foreign policy considerations.

Mr. Johnson's attempt to legitimize or authenticate US armed intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan with religious scripture often used by Dr. King is immoral, at best, and prostitution, at worst. There is a substantial body of work in the sermons, speeches, articles and books by Dr. King that articulates his unwavering and unconditional commitment to nonviolence. This body of work makes it unalterably and consistently clear that Martin Luther King, Jr. abhorred war as a means of resolving disputes among nations, or violence as a means of resolving disputes among or between individuals.

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