Religion

Martin Luther King Jr. Knew Something about Why Life Matters

Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in New York City in 1967 (Library of Congress)
Suffering has meaning.

We live at a time when lawn signs tell us that lives matter, when there are multiple threats to life, some of them legally and socially acceptable. The isolation and fear of the past year have led to an increase in suicide in many parts of the country. Our lives matter, and our suffering, however profoundly unjust, matters. We work for justice but need mercy. Martin Luther King Jr. gets invoked often; his words on suffering are needed.

In four paragraphs urged by his editor but submitted too late for incorporation into an earlier article in The Christian Century, King says that he hesitates to mention his suffering because he doesn’t want to give “the wrong impression.” In these paragraphs, known as “Suffering and Faith,” he writes:

A person who constantly calls attention to his trials and sufferings is in danger of developing a martyr complex and of making others feel that he is consciously seeking sympathy. It is possible for one to be self-centered in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. So I am always reluctant to refer to my personal sacrifices. But I feel somewhat justified in mentioning them in this article because of the influence they have had in shaping my thinking.

King’s humility here is so worth revisiting. We all suffer. It’s part of the human condition in a fallen world. We may know our own suffering, but we may not know our neighbor’s. We may be indifferent, or worse, to his. I often wonder how much of the anger in our country could be alleviated by a little appreciation for the fact that most of us are suffering, some worse than others, and the levels may differ at different times. Think of all the people we judge and get irritated with, or worse. Think of all the people we tend to think of as other. Why do we do that when we would never want to be the “other” — unknown and isolated?

In King’s case, his words are remarkable when he spells out some of what he had to endure — before his assassination — for his courageous leadership:

Due to my involvement in the struggle for the freedom of my people, I have known very few quiet days in the last few years. I have been arrested five times and put in Alabama jails. My home has been bombed twice. A day seldom passes that my family and I are not the recipients of threats of death. I have been the victim of a near fatal stabbing. So in a real sense I have been battered by the storms of persecution.

He was so honest:

I must admit that at times I have felt that I could no longer bear such a heavy burden, and have been tempted to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. But every time such a temptation appeared, something came to strengthen and sustain my determination. I have learned now that the Master’s burden is light precisely when we take his yoke upon us.

He could have said “woe is me” or seen himself as civil-rights savior. Instead, he saw an invitation from God to come to know Him better — and to know better the sufferings that Jesus freely took on, which was the heart of King’s Christian faith:

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.

And this might be key — and often so foreign to us and our culture today:

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.

He went on to explicitly declare that the suffering brought him closer to God:

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.

Our politics are overflowing with bitterness, on all sides. People feel persecuted. People feel overwhelmed. People are bitter, for understandable reasons in many cases. And the media, even with the best intentions, can exacerbate the bitterness. But those who choose to fight through it for a radical kind of love will be the leaders in virtue whom we need right about now.

This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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