As 1968 dawned, the vision of peace and love that was articulated by the hippies and such groups as the Beatles was splintering. The summer of love, only months old, seemed as if it had happened eons ago. Many who believed, as I did, that peace and understanding were going to change things began to question such assumptions.
I was one year away from graduating from college. And I was part of the youth rebellion that was gripping America.
That January, the Vietcong began what is now known as the "Tet Offensive." In an effort to overthrow the generals who were supported by the United States, North Vietnamese forces attacked more than thirty South Vietnamese cities, including Saigon. The power of the North Vietnamese impressed the world. Americans, in particular, were stunned. American government officials had reported that most of Vietnam was secure and an end to the war was in sight. Now, however, after years of war, things looked even worse.
In March, in a South Vietnamese village called My Lai, American soldiers "wasted" 500 unarmed men, women, and children, but the news of it would be suppressed for almost two years.
Simply trying to understand what was going on at the time was impossible. Here I was scheduled to enter the Army after college, but I was against the war. I was still in the first year of my marriage, trying to learn how to be a decent husband. My parents were barely speaking to me. They believed, like a lot of parents during this era, that their child had lost his mind. And studying for classes was difficult. Consequently, I often took solace in a local bar that catered to students.
I was in that bar one evening after classes in April. It was crowded, the day was warm and the cold beer felt good going down. Suddenly, a student jumped up on a table and yelled, "Martin Luther King has just been shot and killed." The students cheered and burst out in applause.
I was stunned. King dead? The great man had been murdered and students were cheering? What was happening to the world?
I went back to my apartment. My first thought as I watched the news of King's assassination was that "they" had killed him because he was challenging the system. King fought racism. He was against the Vietnam War. He was a peace warrior who had gotten out of hand. So "they" killed him, and he became part of what would become an assassination motif of the sixties. This may sound paranoid, but that's what I believed at the time—and I still have my suspicions.
The message I was receiving from these events seemed clear: If you effectively resisted the people in power, you would get hurt. Change, loss of power—that's what they feared. This type of thinking radicalized many young people, including me, and produced the necessary mindset for social activism.
As a result, many of us began to "hate" those in power—the politicians, the military and the corporations. But in the midst of all this, we missed what King had been trying to say to us—much like those who cheered his death that day. Indeed, years later, when I began to study King's writings and speeches, they changed my life.
King was the greatest teacher of Christian love since Jesus Christ. King reiterated in many of his speeches that "to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns" was clearly wrong. To retaliate with hate or bitterness, he often said, would do nothing but intensify hate in the world. "Along the way of life," King proclaimed, "someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can be done only by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives."
King, a minister, viewed love in the Christian sense. As he said: "In speaking of love, we are not referring to some sentimental emotion. It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. 'Love' in this connection means understanding good will."
Furthermore: "When we speak of loving those who oppose us we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word agape. Agape means nothing sentimental or basically affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming good will for all men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. When we love on the agape level we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves them. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed he does."
King also spoke of nonviolence, which he believed is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. It is this deep faith in the future that causes the nonviolent resister to accept suffering without retaliation. He knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship. This belief that God is on the side of truth and justice comes down to us from the long tradition of our Christian faith. There is something at the very center of our faith which reminds us that Good Friday may reign for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the Easter drums. Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but one day that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about the Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.