Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. For many, King’s assassination marked the end of the civil rights movement’s strategy of non-violence.
Some believe his assassination was the result of a conspiracy involving the United States government. King’s family eventually even filed a wrongful death suit against the government, which it (sort of) “won.”
As news of his assassination became known, riots broke out in over 100 cities across America. For many fighting for the cause of civil rights and racial equality, King’s death must’ve signaled a loss of hope that the entrenched white power structures could be reformed through peaceful means.
So…fight fire with fire. Fear with fear. It seems that violence is what works. Force gets things done.
But does it?
The human problem is the human heart. King was a remarkable leader because he understood the problem. As a follower of Jesus, King rightly saw that the solution to the human problem was the strategy of changing hearts for good. Violence never does that. Unfortunately, violence has its place in our broken world, but only when there is no hope for understanding and empathy.
I don’t believe we are at that place yet. I think understanding and empathy have barely been tried. But violence and intolerance can seem easier, faster, and more satisfying to hearts that are hurting.
Following is one of my (reluctantly) favorite quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I believe these words are true, but they are extremely difficult to carry out. This is a hard saying. It is even difficult to read. But I think he is right. His strategy transcends conspiracies, governmental power, intolerance, and hatred:
I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory. — A Christmas Sermon for Peace on Dec 24, 1967
These words, spoken 4 months before his murder, echo the words of Jesus and the apostle Paul: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21.)
It’s a messy business living in a broken world with broken people, and we are still far from the destination that King envisioned. I believe our hope must ultimately come from outside of ourselves; from the Savior who made inward transformation possible through spiritual rebirth. Regardless of how much progress we make in this corrupt age, He promises unity and justice in the age to come. Jesus invites us to experience the realities of that future age right now, in this present age. I think Dr. King, the Baptist minister and activist, would be pleased if the occasion of his death would spur some to accept the invitation of Jesus to step into His kingdom of light.