Martin Luther King Jr on Christians, Suffering, and Faith
Martin Luther King’s Theodicy of Suffering and Evil:
Well most commentators might look at Martin Luther Kings work and suggest that his Essay/speech on Suffering and Christians (link) was his theodicy on suffering. And to be fair–they would probably be true. Its a short, but compelling case around the role of suffering in our lives–creating learning and building better humans. In this instance, he begins by outlining his own sufferings (rather extensively) to build empathy, understanding and credibility and then provides the following wisdom on the issue of the redemptive possibility of suffering:
My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.
There are some who still find the cross a stumbling block, and others consider it foolishness, but I am more convinced than ever before that it is the power of God unto social and individual salvation. So like the Apostle Paul I can now humbly yet proudly say, “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”4 The suffering and agonizing moments through which I have passed over the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God.
But that alone is not the extent of MLKs work on the problem of evil or the theodicy of evil. After digging deeper in his writings, speeches, and sermons–I would suggest that to get a fuller understanding of MLK’s theodicy on suffering you would have to look also to his Eulogy for Martyred Children (link). While the bulk of this speech isn’t about the issue of suffering–it does contain two core paragraphs which perhaps provide a higher meaning in suffering. Although you can read a fuller version of the text and perhap derive a conditioned argument specific to the struggle for liberation, I think the majority of this passage suggests a slightly different tenor:
May I now say a word to you, the members of the bereaved families? It is almost impossible to say anything that can console you at this difficult hour and remove the deep clouds of disappointment which are floating in your mental skies. But I hope you can find a little consolation from the universality of this experience. Death comes to every individual. There is an amazing democracy about death. It is not aristocracy for some of the people, but a democracy for all of the people. Kings die and beggars die; rich men and poor men die; old people die and young people die. Death comes to the innocent and it comes to the guilty. Death is the irreducible common denominator of all men.
I hope you can find some consolation from Christianity’s affirmation that death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.
Now I say to you in conclusion, life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and difficult moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. (Yeah, Yes) Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters. (Yeah) And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him (Yeah, Well), and that God is able (Yeah, Yes) to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.
And so today, you do not walk alone. You gave to this world wonderful children. [moans] They didn’t live long lives, but they lived meaningful lives. (Well) Their lives were distressingly small in quantity, but glowingly large in quality. (Yeah) And no greater tribute can be paid to you as parents, and no greater epitaph can come to them as children, than where they died and what they were doing when they died. (Yeah) They did not die in the dives and dens of Birmingham (Yeah, Well), nor did they die discussing and listening to filthy jokes. (Yeah) They died between the sacred walls of the church of God (Yeah, Yes), and they were discussing the eternal meaning (Yes) of love. This stands out as a beautiful, beautiful thing for all generations. (Yes) Shakespeare had Horatio to say some beautiful words as he stood over the dead body of Hamlet. And today, as I stand over the remains of these beautiful, darling girls, I paraphrase the words of Shakespeare: (Yeah, Well): Good night, sweet princesses. Good night, those who symbolize a new day. (Yeah, Yes) And may the flight of angels (That’s right) take thee to thy eternal rest. God bless you.