taking the words of Jesus seriously

Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared on the RLC blog on April 4, 2022 but is perhaps even more relevant two years later. We share it again in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the the 56th anniversary of his death, 57 years after his historic Riverside speech. 

Here are a few highlights from our event at The Riverside Church this past weekend, on the anniversary of Dr. King’s historic speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” We had 27 faith leaders read portions of King’s original speech, including his daughter, Rev. Dr. Bernice King. I’ll also highlight a few of King’s quotes from the speech below (along with who read them) … but you really should watch the recording of the whole evening if you missed it. It was epic.

We kicked off the evening with a gathering of about 40 clergy and leaders from around the country, and spent some time reflecting together, listening to what the Spirit is doing among us, especially as we remember King’s words in 1967 and his assassination a year later.

Bishop Herbert Daughtry shared with his daughter Bishop Leah Daughtry. He was there in 1967 when Dr. King delivered the original sermon. He shared about how powerful it is to be together on the 55th anniversary. He also shared about how courageous and unpopular it was when King first delivered it.

Here’s the backdrop… One year ago, Red Letter Christians hosted a virtual reading of “Beyond Vietnam.” Afterwards we said, “What if we did it in person next year?”

Then we said, “What if we did it AT RIVERSIDE?”

Then we said, “What if Rev. Bernice King would join us?”

And here we are…

Because Dr. King names the many of the manifestations of violence calls us to comprehensively confront violence and the conditions that lead to violence, we made those connections throughout the night. The stations of the cross on the altar are painted by men on death row. It is also Lent, a powerful reminder that Jesus subverted all our systems of violence on the cross.

“We were taking the Black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And so, we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.”

–MLK read by Lisa Sharon Harper

“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

–MLK read by Carlos Rodriguez The Happy Givers NPO

“We were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:

‘O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath —

America will be!'”

–MLK quoting Langston Hughes, read by Rev. Todd Yeary (RLC Board Chair)

“Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men — for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?”

–MLK read by Cece Jones-Davis

“They must see Americans as strange liberators.”

–MLK read by Rev. Dr. Shakeema North

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

— MLK read by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis

“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 comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

–MLK read by Rev. Sharon Risher

“These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” …Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

–MLK read by Jemar Tisby

“This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, or nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing — embracing and unconditional love for all mankind.”

–MLK read by Phillip Joubert from Common Hymnal

“We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.”

–MLK read by Stephen Green

“We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”

— MLK read by Leslie Callahan

“Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.

And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace.

If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

— MLK read by Rev. Bernice King

The last section was read by Rev. Bernice King, and we all said the final words together… “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I knew the spoken words of King would be powerful, and they were. But what was also remarkable was feeling a fresh sense of worship, and hope, even revival stirring up among us. Some talented musicians led us in singing– Common Hymnal, Aaron Niequist, and Brian Courtney Wilson…a healthy reminder that this work does not rest on us alone…we are conspiring with God in this revolution of love.

As we challenge to the toxic versions of Christianity, we’ve got to also be ready for God to do a new thing among us. And as I looked out over this audience of faith leaders, bishops, pastors, organizers, elders, activists, authors, historians, and theologians last night I was filled with hope. I AM filled with hope.

We got this. Last night Rev. Bernice King closed us out with an invitation to come back to Jesus. She reminded us that her dad, and mom, were doing their best to reflect Jesus to the world.

We are up against some fierce principalities and powers – the triplet evils of racism, materialism, and militarism are as alive and well as they were 55 years ago. But the love of God is the strongest force in the world. Nothing is more powerful than God’s love.

It was a gift to team up with my brother Michael McBride and the spiritual force known as Rev. Traci Blackmon. There were dozens of groups that worked together to pull it off, including all the fine folks at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and at The King Center. Grateful for Rev. Livingston and The Riverside Church for hosting us.

Thanks be to God.

About The Author


Shane Claiborne is a best-selling author, renowned activist,
 sought-after speaker, and self-proclaimed “recovering sinner.” Shane writes and speaks around the world about peacemaking, social justice, and Jesus, and is the author of several books, 
including "The Irresistible Revolution," "Jesus for President," "Executing Grace," "Beating Guns," and his newest book, "Rethinking Life (released in Feb 2023)." He is the visionary leader of The Simple Way in Philadelphia and co-director of Red Letter Christians. His work has been featured in Fox News, Esquire, SPIN, TIME, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and CNN.

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