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Reclaiming moral high ground

The questions of faith and values are ubiquitous, especially during the holiday season. Especially troubling is the fraught intersection of organized religion, mainstream and social media, politics and the classroom.

For example, the words of my hero, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are regularly twisted to advocate positions antithetical to the spiritual guidance he offers. They use his dream that children be judged by the content of their character to justify not more affirmative action, but less; not more accurate history, but less; not more economic equity, but less. We will not be surprised if the U.S. Navy names a warship the USS Martin Luther King.

I (Wim) teach the power of nonviolence in my classes, and I make sure that I distinguish between the two lanes: principled and pragmatic.

The principled argument is one that connects to values, whether rooted in religious teachings or philosophical arguments.

The pragmatic argument on the other hand comes directly from evidence and logic. It examines methods of social struggle by costs and benefits. The science of peace makes the benefits clear: nonviolence is more effective than violence and costs are a tiny fraction of violence.

Preparing for war and waging it are costing U.S. taxpayers more than any other item: $768 billion in new expenses and more billions of dollars for past harms, including life-time care for veterans, survivor family benefits and environmental clean-up.

Listening to politicians, we might think that the ethics of helping young families with the extra burdens of COVID-19 impacts is only a nice frill that we really can’t afford, but maintaining huge overseas military bases is somehow vital and that trumps help with child care or rent. Power to inflict death and destruction is more important than morals, if we watch how our federal elected officials vote, and very few church, mosque or temple leaders are teaching congregants anything different.

Preparing for peace is priceless. Using humanitarian aid, diplomacy and fair trade agreements — for starters — can radically lower international hostilities and reduce the likelihood of war. Developing strong international coalitions that use economic carrots and sticks to enforce human rights and environmental protection uses both good values and moral methods.

Martin Luther King Jr. used both principles and pragmatism when he backed up Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Ala.; that struggle used nonviolent resistance as begun by Parks but also used economic sanctions by refusing to take the bus and also waging a court case with some of the best lawyers arguing all the way to the Supreme Court. This mix of religious teaching and practical organizing was the model that produced a decade of victories for the Civil Rights movement.

The lives of religious founders were usually lives of the dispossessed, of the refugee, of someone persecuted by the rich and powerful. Yet, we hear rich and powerful gas-lighting commentators like Tucker Carlson pretend to be religious in the most loony exhortations. We saw Trump order American citizens teargassed so he could stand in front of a church holding a Bible.

The stories of the lives of King and Jesus describe what happens when we unselfishly commit ourselves to doing good. We have a handful of such examples valiantly trying today, such as the Rev. William Barber, whose efforts are indeed reminiscent of Rosa Parks, Dr. King, the Rev. James Lawson and the many who taught and acted in a better fashion, in a more moral way, and led to victories.

They actively listened to empathize with others — even their enemies — and like King proclaimed, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

We think it is time to recommit ourselves to doing right, the time is right.

Editor’s note: Wim Laven, Ph.D., syndicated by PeaceVoice, teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution. Sebastian Santos, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a graduate of Portland State University and is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Lewis and Clark College. Dr. Tom H. Hastings is coordinator of Conflict Resolution B.A./B.S. degree programs and certificates at Portland State University, PeaceVoice senior editor and, on occasion, an expert witness for the defense of civil resisters in court.