Martin Luther King Jr. and a Just World Order

by Chris Borgen

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I wanted to post a few thoughts on Dr. King’s message and the work of international law. Brian Lehrer on WNYC has been running a show today of short excerpts of readings in some way reflective of Dr. King’s message but about cultures other than our own. Also, for those interested in reading from Dr. King’s papers and speeches, Stanford University has an excellent collected papers project available online.

But why talk about Dr. King on a blog about international law? King’s voice was not the voice of the international lawyer, but of the pastor. He didn’t parse treaties; he invoked morality. Nonetheless, there is something in Dr. King’s rhetoric and in his argument that can inform and engage the work of international lawyers.

Quite simply, Martin Luther King put himself in the shoes of others and spoke eloquently about their claims for justice. This technique of looking at the world from the standpoint of others is all the more vital when we are discussing laws or norms that we claim should be applied across national and cultural borders. Consider, for example, how Dr. King referred to the people of Vietnam in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech delivered on April 4th, 1967:

And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.

Not so much a battle for the hearts and minds, but an attempt to understand hearts and minds. He asks us to “appreciate the reciprocal”: think of how the world would look from the standpoint of the average man or woman living in Vietnam. Towards the end of his speech, he expands from the concerns of U.S. policy in Vietnam to the challenge of building not so much a “New World Order,” but a “Just World Order.” He argues that truly appreciating the reciprocal, this radical compassion on the individual level, leads to institutional transformation:

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

While full of references to the problems of the day (the Communist threat; whether to seat Red China in the U.N.), Dr. King still gives us a lesson for our day. He argues that we should see ourselves in the other and that many rights are universal and not the preserve of Western societies. But, at the same time, he counseled humility in international discourse and an openess to learning from others, rather than on insisting that we in “the West” can only be teachers. He emphasized showing what a rights-based view of humanity had to offer, rather than simply criticizing the world-view of others. And, at the end of the day, he put more faith in the possibility transformative discourse than in supposed pragmatism of regime change.

A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values…

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not call everyone a Communist or an appeaser who advocates the seating of Red China in the United Nations and who recognizes that hate and hysteria are not the final answers to the problem of these turbulent days. We must not engage in a negative anti-communism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.

Dr. King spoke in the voice of a preacher. There’s much good in what he said and some that may not seem practical to us today. But, at the very least, he provided a coherent world view that wasn’t subsumed by international law but encompassed it.

Martin Luther King Day allows us to remember the battles fought in the past: Freedom Marches, lunch counter sit-ins, and facing Bull Conner’s dogs. To a certain extent it allows us Americans to pat ourselves on the back and say “Look how far we’ve come.” But King’s message goes beyond Alabama in the mid-1960’s and is still radical, challenging, and of global relevance today. As an international lawyer, I read his words and think not only about how far we’ve come, but about how far we have to go.

http://opiniojuris.org/2005/01/17/martin-luther-king-jr-and-a-just-world-order/

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