There will be much published in the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The fiftieth anniversary of his death tomorrow evening causes these kinds of reflections about the man, his life and legacy. I have written a good bit in this space about his ministry of nonviolence and the effect that position had on regional politics and national policy. In the former, nonviolence appealed to American notions of fairness in light of the stark responses of segregationists. As for national policy on the global stage, he could not muster the same goodwill to cause a change of course toward America’s leadership in international affairs. Pax Americana tolerated very little dissent abroad and military force could answer any threat. In King’s mind, however, the use of nonviolence meant that a nation determined to be a light in God’s world could not be the purveyor of violence in any economic or military form. It is this intellectual and theological move that makes Martin Luther King, Jr. a radical.
I wrote during Lent about King’s scheduled meeting with Thomas Merton and Nhat Hanh that was suppose to take place on April 3 and 4, 1968, at Gethsemane Abbey in Bardstown, Kentucky. The sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis caught King’s attention and he hurriedly changed his itinerary to be in Memphis. We would likely not have had the “mountaintop” sermon, at least in its near foreshadowing form with his death less than twenty-four hours later. The purpose of the gathering at the abbey was to discuss how to practice nonviolence on a national/global scale, something Hanh had been advocating for more than a decade in the Republic of Vietnam in circumstances similar to the oppressive forces against African Americans in the US. Merton had hoped that Gethsemane would be an ideal place for two religious giants of the day to discuss how the Poor People’s Campaign and the March on Washington would use nonviolence on a broad economic and political scale to achieve the beloved community. The meeting never took place, and we will never know the possible outcome of the growing relationship between the Baptist preacher, Buddhist monk, and Trappist monk.
Historians cannot and should not play what if scenarios. Any number of possibilities exist for the scenario to have been similar if only delayed. Merton would be dead as well later the same year on a trip to Asia to engage in interfaith dialogue. While Hanh still lives and teaches in France, he was never able to return to Vietnam after the end of hostilities there. Even as American allies treated Hanh as a communist sympathizer, Vietnamese communists did not trust his emphasis on Buddhism as a working system for change.
The landscape shifted in the aftermath of the 1960s, but it remains unclear if that change is what any of the three had envisioned in 1968 when they planned to gather in the rolling hills of the quiet abbey to discuss their vision for a nonviolent world. It seems fitting that the fiftieth anniversary of King’s death falls on the Wednesday after Christians in the west celebrated the promise of resurrection. In King and Merton’s case, they died in the hope for a world yet seen but made possible by an empty tomb. Perhaps the beloved community is always among us and still somehow beyond us.