United Nations Dispatch: Martin Luther King and World Peace

January 16, 2017

Dr. Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, and Dr. Ralph Bunche at United Nations Headquarters, December 4, 1964.  Photo courtesy of the United Nations Department of Public Information.

This post was written for the Catholic Social Teaching Corner by Fr. Francis Belanger, OP, the promoter of social justice for the Dominican Province of St. Joseph.

Across First Avenue from the United Nations complex in New York is situated a park dedicated to Ralph Bunche, a friend and collaborator of Martin Luther King, Jr. Bunche, an African-American, was a man of astonishing achievement. In an era when his horizons were still limited by Jim Crow laws in the U.S., he became the U.N. Undersecretary General for Special Political Affairs and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. His friendship with Dr. King symbolized the integral connection King saw between civil rights at home and international peace. It is a vision very consonant with that of the Catholic Church.

Martin Luther King, a leader of the non-violent struggle for racial equality, also spoke out about the war in Vietnam in the latter years of his life. He drew a connection, succinctly stated in a speech called “Beyond Vietnam”  on April 4th, 1967, between injustice at home and injustice abroad. He noted the tragic irony in the situation of so many black and poor soldiers fighting in a land far away for rights that they were not guaranteed back home. It was as if the war, which would end ignominiously for the U.S., was a distraction from real problems within the soul of America.

I was in Memphis not long ago and stopped by the Lorraine Hotel, where King was assassinated a year to the day after his Vietnam speech. It commemorates a tragically historic moment, whose meaning is clarified by a sermon he gave the night before he died. In “The Mountaintop Speech”, King presented a stirring historic view of his movement and then, moved by a graced premonition, reflected on his own mortality, ending thus: “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” For King, the struggle for peace and justice required a vision, took time, and was only understood in the context of Biblical revelation.

There is a tremendous overlap between King’s vision and Catholic social doctrine. As he saw a link between human rights and peace, so too does the Church. One relevant unifying principle is “integral human development” – viz., the call to enhance the growth “of every person and of all humanity.” [Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, para. 1] The Magisterium, although allowing the possibility of a just war, generally inveighs against combat in these latter days. Saint John Paul II used World War II as an example of the nearly universal harm of modern warfare in his social encyclical Centesimus Annus. [cf. paras. 18-19] For Pope Francis, as for Dr. King, the progress of justice takes time, as Christians yearn for the “brighter horizon of the utopian future as the final cause which draws us to itself.” [Evangelii Gaudium, para. 222]

Ralph Bunche Park is adorned prominently with a Scripture quote: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4) This eschatological vision inspired Martin Luther King and inspires the Church in her work of peace and justice. As we pray for God’s will to be done, we are all called to be instruments of justice and peace.

More News & Events