Awful grace

On the night back in 1968 when the Rev Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency in Indianapolis. Riots were spreading across the country, and Kennedy had been warned to cancel his scheduled event. Instead he chose to speak to the waiting crowd. You could hear the gasps and cries as the people learned of Rev King’s assassination from Kennedy himself.

There was no teleprompter. Kennedy simply spoke from the heart, holding his rolled-up script in his right hand.

People could choose to respond with “bitterness, hatred, and a desire for revenge,” he said, or they could respond as Martin Luther King did, replacing the “stain of bloodshed” with “compassion and love.”

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: ‘In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”

Kennedy concluded by calling on the people in the crowd to “return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King…and to say a prayer for our country, which all of us love–a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.”

I wonder how many of us could have done what Kennedy did that night.

Not only did Kennedy not give a canned speech; not only did he not pander (he quoted from memory an ancient Greek poet); he simply lamented with and for hurting people and a hurting nation.

He, like the poets who wrote the laments of the Bible, cast the nation on the goodness and justice of God.

Today, the Landmark for Peace Memorial honoring Kennedy and King marks the spot where Kennedy spoke.

Because of Kennedy’s speech, people there that night went home and prayed. Indianapolis was spared the violence that engulfed most major US cities.

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