Marking MLK Day From the Hovels of Afghanistan

In Atlanta this month, the King Center announced its "Choose Nonviolence" campaign, calling on people to incorporate the symbolism of bell-ringing into their Martin Luther King holiday observance as a means of showing their commitment to Dr. King's value of nonviolence in resolving terrible issues of inequality, discrimination and poverty here at home.

We heard their call all the way from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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. ... A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. –Dr. Martin Luther King, April 4, 1967

On the same day they learned of the King Center's call, the young members of the Afghan Peace Volunteers were grieving the fresh news that seven children and their mother were killed in the night by a U.S. aerial attack -- part of a battle in the Siahgird district of the Parwan province. The outrage, grief, loss and pain felt in Siahgird echoed horribly throughout Afghanistan during a very violent week.

My young friends, ever inspired by Dr. King's message, prepared an observance for MLK Day as they shared bread and tea for breakfast. They talked about the futility of war and the predictable cycles of revenge that are caused every time someone is killed. Then they made a poster listing each of the killings they had learned of in the previous week.

They didn't have a bell, and they didn’t have the money to buy one, so Zekerullah set to work with a bucket, a spoon and a rope, making something that approximates a bell. In the APV courtyard, an enlarged vinyl poster of Dr. King covers half of one wall, opposite another poster of Gandhi and Khan Abdul Gaffir Khan, the "Muslim Gandhi" who led Pathan tribes in the nonviolent Khudai Khidmatgar colonial independence movement to resist the British. Zekerullah's makeshift "bell' was suspended next to King's poster. Several dozen friends joined the volunteers as we listened to it rattle, rather than the pealing sound a proper bell makes.

The poster listing that week's death toll was held aloft and read aloud. "January 15, 2014: seven children, one woman, Siahgird district of Parwan, killed by the U.S./NATO. January 15, 2014, 16 Taliban militants, killed by Afghan police, army and intelligence operatives across seven regions, Parwan, Baghlan, Kunduz, Kandahar, Zabul, Logar, and Paktiya. January 12, 2014: One police academy student and one academy staff member, killed by a Taliban suicide bomber in Kabul on the road to Jalalabad. January 9, 2014: one four-year-old boy killed in Helmand by NATO. January 9, 2014: seven people, several of them police, killed in Helmand by unknown suicide bombers. January 7, 2014: 16 militants killed by Afghan security forces in Nangarhar, Logar, Ghanzi, Pakitya, Heart and Nimroz."

We couldn't know then that within two days, news would come from a Taliban spokesperson of 21 people -- 13 foreigners and eight Afghans -- who were killed at a Kabul restaurant. The Taliban said that the attack was in retaliation for the seven children killed in the airstrike in Parwan. The chart of killings grows longer week after week.

And yet , even as the war rages in Afghanistan, an estimated 1 million children will continue to suffer from acute malnourishment, in an ever-worsening hunger crisis.

This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we can and should remember the dream Dr. King announced before the Lincoln Memorial -- the dream he did so much to accomplish -- remembering his call for nonviolent solutions to discrimination and inequality within the U.S. But we shouldn't let ourselves forget the full extent of Dr. King's vision, the urgent tasks he urgently set us to fulfill on his behalf, so many of them left unfinished nearly 46 years after he was taken from us.

One year to the day before his assassination, Dr. King said:

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."... The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand 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 the veins of peoples 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.

We must never forget the full range of Dr. King's vision, nor the full tragedy of the world he sought to heal, nor the revolutionary spirit he saw as our only hope of achieving his vision. We must make do with everything we have to try to keep freedom ringing, despite the pervasiveness of the evils that befall us. Our world needs a vigorous effort to save us from the tyranny and violence practiced without consequence by our reckless elites.

“America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values,” Dr. King said. “There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”

Kathy Kelly co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence from Kabul, Afghanistan, where she is a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers.

Photo: Tracing Tea /