01/31/2013 06:07 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

The Culture of Violence and the Beloved Community

Now is a good time to remember the prophetic denunciation of America's violence that The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave in a controversial speech at The Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. Against the advice of many who feared that an antii-war speech would deflect attention from the Civil Rights Movement, he declared that "The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit..." With sorrow in his voice, he identified his own nation's government as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." He pointed to "the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism."

"I am convinced," he said, "that ... we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values."

One year to the day after giving that speech in a city beside the Hudson River, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot dead by a gunman in a city beside the Mississippi. America's greatest man of peace, its most dedicated and most effective leader of nonviolent action, was himself the victim of guns, violence and hatred.

The danger in celebrating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is that, if we are not careful, hero worship can lull us -- as indeed it has lulled so many in America -- into false optimism, the avoidance of the moral dilemmas of our own time.

One widespread delusion in America is that, thanks to Dr. King and President Obama, the Civil Rights Movement has succeeded, turning this country into a post-racial society. It is true that we have twice elected an African-American to be president, but that does not mean that we have finished dealing with race in America. It just means we have a better opportunity to try.

The delusion that we are post-racial, and the delusion that our strength as a nation lies in the military, have much in common. The first provides a cover to hide the realities of white privilege that still pervade American society. The second hides the reality of America's imperial behavior throughout the world and our neglect of social justice at home.

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This year, the slaughter of the innocents came before Christmas -- in Newtown, Connecticut, on the 14th of December. It has led to a national discussion about allowing ordinary people to buy weapons of war. While the president and others are leading an effort to get tighten the control over guns, the sale of weapons to the public has greatly increased, and the gun industry promotes their use even by children. But this government continues internationally to be a purveyor of violence. At the same time that our government tries to limit the availability of guns to the people, it is vastly increasing the use of predatory drones that target and kill people from the air by remote control. In the Oval Office, the President of the United States personally decides whom to kill, including at least one American citizen, with no accountability to any court or law.

When we become terrorists in order to abolish terrorism, why is this not seen as madness?

We do not see the absurdity of it because we are like drunks and junkies who truly believe that to get our of their difficulties they need more of what got them into trouble in the first place. So we have a man who has enormous influence upon Congress telling the nation that "the only way to stop a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun."

If the head of the National Rifle Association, who said that, had studied the Hebrew Torah or the Christian Scriptures, he would know that even good people do bad things. The laws of Torah and the morality of Jesus all aim to protect us, first of all, from ourselves. The greatest dangers we ever face are those that arise from inside.

In famous words often quoted but seldom heeded, Jesus said, "Those who use the sword will die by the sword." Martin Luther King, Jr. had learned the truth of that from the black experience in America. And he knew, as Jesus and the Hebrew prophets did, that the sword is always a weapon of injustice. That is why he spoke of militarism as one of the "giant triplets," going hand in hand with racism and materialism. These add up to what we are beginning to recognize as a culture of violence. We need to recognize that this prone-to-violence culture is the expression of a certain spirit that has infected us.

Saint Paul wrote that our real opponents are not flesh and blood but principalities and powers. That is to say, our true enemies are not people but spirits, beliefs, practices, ideologies or whatever you wish to call them that want to capture our minds and destroy our moral core. The theologian Paul Tillich used to call that spirit of destruction "demonic." Following the suggestion of Walter Wink and others, we may also call it the "spirit of domination."

Our violent culture is driven by the will to dominate. We know this spirit well, because we can often feel it inside ourselves. It is the determination to get things done our way, to triumph over those who oppose us, and the smug satisfaction we feel when we succeed.

This same spirit of domination is writ large in militarism. As it is run today, imbued with the spirit of domination, the primary purpose of the Pentagon is not defense but world dominance. That is why the Pentagon has more than 700 military bases outside the United States. Likewise the purpose of our huge corporations and banks is to dominate the world's market places. American racism is also born of the will to dominate -- that is, to maintain white supremacy.. Sexism insures male dominance. Extreme inequality of wealth allows the economically strong to dominate the poor, who are economically weak. The problems we face are not technical. They are diseases of the spirit.

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Over against the spirit of domination, one of whose faces is Jim Crow, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., lifted up the beloved community. The end we seek, he wrote, "is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform...."

King was no sentimentalist. For him, love was not just a feeling. It was decision and action. That is why he chose the path of nonviolence, which is a greater challenge than war and requires more discipline. "The aftermath of nonviolence," he said, "is the creation of the beloved community, so that when the battle's over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor. ... the way of non-violence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community."

In speaking of the beloved community, we speak of a unity that can be found only in the presence of diversity. It is not a fellowship of people who look alike, think alike, sound alike or worship alike. It is made up of people who have decided to love one another not in spite of but because of their differences. And the first step in the direction of such love is respect.

Today we have a choice between the culture of violence and the beloved community. The culture of violence wants to put a gun in every hand and see the world as a place of deadly competition in the spirit of domination. The Beloved Community wants to enlist us all in the Divine project of forging justice and making peace. As we cannot have peace without justice, so we cannot make justice with war.

The Beloved Community is not a place. It is people marching without guns.

The memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., should serve to enlist us in that nonviolent army to which God has been calling us since the beginning of the world.

Tom F. Driver is the Paul J. Tillich Professor of Theology and Culture Emeritus at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He delivered a longer version of these words at a community-wide, interfaith service honoring Dr. King on January 20, 2013, at the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Hightstown, N.J.