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.

God’s power, human power

In August of 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with the speech, “Where do we go from here?” Every person in the country should study it.

But then, we don’t like long speeches, do we? We prefer memes, soundbites, chants, and slogans. We get addicted to the adrenalin that comes from the things that incite our passion. The long, hard, strategic work that actually affects change over time, well, we don’t have the patience for that. 

King reflected on ten years of the SCLC’s work for racial justice across the country.  And in answering, “Where do we go from here?” he affirmed his commitment to non-violence. But at the same time, he challenged ministers and others who reduced the idea of love to a sentiment:

“Now, we’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.

“And the other thing is, I’m concerned about a better world. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood; I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.

“Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.

“Let us be dissatisfied, and men will recognize, that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.

“Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout, “White Power!” when nobody will shout, “Black Power!” but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.”

This Sunday, I’m preaching on the story of the first convert to Christianity in the Book of Acts: a black, sexually-altered man from a foreign country. For all those reasons, the man would have been excluded from Judaism. He was someone Philip would never have met on his own. It took massive intervention by the Holy Spirit to get Philip to seek him out. But when Philip explained the Gospel, the man was changed.

It was through transformations like this that the church, in the power of the Holy Spirit, transformed the world.

As King said, “Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.”

The light of the Gospel.