I can’t tell you how grateful I am that today Barack Obama is sworn in as President of the United States and not Mitt Romney. Not to put too fine a point on it, but as far as I’m concerned Romney is a man with zero integrity. If elected, he would not had been the first President lacking that quality, but he lost, and the four years a man who does have that quality is at the helm.
I wish Barack Obama well, and I am proud to have him as my President.
It is an auspicious day, as the nation is also celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Well, most of us celebrate. I wasn’t alive when Dr. King was born, but I surely remember the day he died. I lived in New Orleans at the time. There were no riots, as in some other cities, but a great deal of tension and fear for several days afterward.
There are some who feel that Dr. was the victim of a conspiracy (a view upheld by a civil trial in 1999) and that his opposition to the Vietnam War was the tipping point that sealed his doom. He began to speak out in opposition to the war in 1965. During the 1999 trial, Reverend James Lawson testified that King alienated President Johnson and other powerful men in the government when he repudiated the Vietnam War on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death, in a speech at the New York City Riverside Church, “Beyond Vietnam”:
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted . . . I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.”
Dr. King went on to say, “This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words” and then he offered a quote. (read the entire speech) I have never seen the author of that quote identified, but I suspect it might have been Thich Nhat Hanh. They first met during the Buddhist monk’s visit to the United States in 1966. The meeting had quite an impact on Dr. King, and influenced the “Beyond Vietnam” speech. That same year, 1967, King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In a 2010 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Thich Nhat Hanh recalled that meeting:
In June 1965, I wrote him a letter explaining why the monks in Vietnam immolated themselves. I said that this is not a suicide. I said that in situations like the one in Vietnam, to make your voice heard is difficult. Sometimes we have to burn ourselves in order to be heard. It is out of compassion that you do that. It is the act of love and not of despair. And exactly one year after I wrote that letter, I met him in Chicago. We had a discussion about peace, freedom, and community. And we agreed that without a community, we cannot go very far.
Oprah: How long was the discussion?
Nhat Hanh: Probably five minutes or so. And after that, there was a press conference, and he came out very strongly against the war in Vietnam.
Oprah: Do you think that was a result of your conversation?
Nhat Hanh: I believe so. We continued our work, and the last time I met him was in Geneva during the peace conference.
Oprah: Did the two of you speak then?
Nhat Hanh: Yes. He invited me up for breakfast, to talk about these issues again. I got caught in a press conference downstairs and came late, but he kept the breakfast warm for me. And I told him that the people in Vietnam call him a bodhisattva—enlightened being—because of what he was doing for his people, his country, and the world.
Oprah: And the fact that he was doing it nonviolently.
Nhat Hanh: Yes. That is the work of a bodhisattva, a buddha, always with compassion and nonviolence. When I heard of his assassination, I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “The American people have produced King but are not capable of preserving him.” I was a little bit angry. I did not eat, I did not sleep. But my determination to continue building the beloved community continues always. And I think that I felt his support always.
Nhat Hanh: Yes.
This is an Oprah Winfrey interview that has much more value than the one with Lance Armstrong which the news media has been playing over and over the past few days. The obsession with a sports figure who is now a confessed liar is a rather sad commentary on our culture. The one thing I’ve taken away from the excerpts of the Armstrong interview I’ve seen is that it was all about winning. I guess no one ever told him it’s how you play the game that is most important. Too many people today have missed or ignored that piece of advice.
Today is a good day to reflect upon the measure of some truly great men, like Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thich Nhat Hanh – men with faults, to be sure, but men who have one of the greatest of human qualities: integrity. As the great crime fiction writer, John D. MacDonald once wrote,
Integrity is not a conditional word. It doesn’t blow in the wind or change with the weather. It is your inner image of yourself, and if you look in there and see a man who won’t cheat, then you know he never will.”