"We must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but the means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means."

Those words, spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. on Christmas Eve in 1967, remain poignantly relevant as our nation prepares for war in the Persian Gulf. Martin fiercely believed that the force of peaceful negotiations is more powerful than a bomb in resolving conflicts among nations. It is that same spirit that etched out the mandate of the United Nations and gave it the supreme authority as the arbitrator of world peace.

It is regretful that the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., champion of nonviolence, would be designated by the U.N. as the launching date for a military offensive in the Gulf, although followers of Dr. King should oppose a military conflict on any day. It is disturbing that one day our government would hand the U.N. a check for $185 million in back dues -- becoming current in payments to the world body for the first time in two decades -- and then successfully push the U.N. to adopt a resolution authorizing force against Iraq as a means of settling the conflict.

As a former public delegate to the U.N., I viewed with pride and hope the United Nations' recent peacekeeping achievements in Afghanistan, Namibia, Cambodia and Nicaragua. Each of those missions was framed by its own unique reality, but the constant element was the role played by the U.N. as a guiding, uncompromised agent of peace. In this new era of East-West cooperation, the U.N. has an unprecedented opportunity to lead the world to a golden age of peace and prosperity.

Yet, I fear that the U.N. position as a peace arbitrator is being undermined by the U.S. administration's policy in the Gulf at a time when diplomacy and negotiation are desperately needed to settle the conflict.

The United Nations must reclaim its responsibility to exert leadership for a peaceful settlement. If the response to Iraq is to genuinely be a multinational one, no nation should contribute more than 20 percent of the personnel and forces under U.N. command.

The U.S. administration should not unilaterally decide whether Iraq's offer to negotiate is acceptable. Other multinational initiatives, particularly efforts by Arab leaders, should be considered as an integral part of the urgent quest for peace.

We must give economic sanctions against Iraq, which are wholly embraced by the international community as a peaceful alternative to military intervention, an opportunity to work. This will require patience, restraint and international cooperation. Time spent waiting out Saddam Hussein is a much lower price than the untold numbers of lives that would be lost in a shooting war. Without a shot yet fired, nearly 100 young people have already died, a $30 billion price tag has been assessed, and tens of thousands of families are enduring hardship and disruptions.

As Martin once stressed, ''the bombs that explode on {the foreign battlefield} also explode at home, destroying the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.''

Where is the peace dividend we counted on as the Berlin Wall crumbled? Is Saddam Hussein a greater threat to our national security than the fact that 37 million Americans lack health care, 20 million are malnourished, 3 million are homeless, 20 million are illiterate and 12 million cannot find a full-time job at a living wage?

Much has been said about the disproportionate deployment of African Americans, estimated to be nearly 30 percent, and about the war for wealth and power fought by the most denied of our society. Proponents of war excuse the deployment as a just reflection of the volunteer military, ignoring the reality that if war erupts it will not be an equal opportunity destroyer.

Can we simply dismiss the startling statistics? For instance, African-American women -- less than 7 percent of the population -- make up 48.7 percent of the Army's enlisted women, compared with white women, who are 43.6 percent, according to Pentagon statistics. Can we shut our eyes to the reason that these grossly lopsided figures exist? Is it an unrelated statistic that shows black women and their children the largest single group of Americans living in poverty? Is it not the conditions of social and economic injustice that force African-American youths to seek escape in the military?

Proponents of war have grown more vocal over the past month as the Jan. 15 deadline authorizing the use of force against Iraq draws near. Their shrill refrains have attempted to dismiss peace advocates as naive or weak. But our mission remains clear. That deadline on Martin's 62nd birthday reminds us that so much remains to be done to end the triple evils of poverty, racism and war.

Martin's message is appropriate: ''The thunder of fearless voices will be the only sound stronger than the blasts of bombs and the clamor of war hysteria.''

The voices of peace and nonviolence must be amplified as a moral challenge to President Bush, Saddam Hussein and the world.

The writer is founding president and chief executive officer of the Atlanta-based Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.