Saturday, February 6, 2010

Dr King on the problem of suffering. A Sermon on Haiti

Source: FORpeace - the blog of the Fellowship of Reconciliation
Like all of us, Dr. King faced the problem of suffering and evil. There are many wonderful things in life, many so pervasive that we don’t even think about them -- like  hearts that beat continually, eyes that see, ears that hear, arms and legs that move: these we take for granted and may never have thought of them as daily miracles.
But we also have minds that think and that raise questions as seen, e.g. in the age-old questions pondered in the Bible: why do the wicked prosper? Why do we suffer? Why does evil occur? I am sure many of you have thought about this with the destructive earthquake in Haiti.

Someone wrote in The New York Times this week in an article about Haiti: “God is angry.� The fundamentalist preacher Pat Robertson said that France had ruled Haiti and that in order to get rid of the French two centuries ago Haitians made a pact with the devil, and they have been cursed ever since! I find such thinking appalling with its view of a capricious and wicked God. In a similarly callous vein, Rush Limbaugh said, “ the earthquake was made to order for Obama, it just gave him a big chance to burnish his image in both the light-skinned and dark skinned parts of the black community.� Such comments are so insensitive and inappropriate that they must be clearly rejected.
But let’s face it: sometimes people attribute especially evil things to God’s anger and punishment. Natural calamities, such as earthquakes and floods and extreme storms, are believed by many to be sent by God as punishment.
But wait a minute! People who live on a fault line, or below sea level, or on the side of a volcano are in danger of destructive natural disasters. Scientists are beginning to understand what disasters are coming because of global warming. We ignore this at our peril, as some are doing by rejecting the role of science in understanding the created universe.
In the past year, Haiti suffered from four very destructive hurricanes and now this earthquake. These calamities are tragic occurances in a nation near a dangerous fault line and in a part of the world where erratic weather patterns have been creating havoc.
Because Martin Luther King only lived until he was 39, we don’t have a lifetime of speeches and writings (as we do with Gandhi, who lived till he was 78). What I do know about his response to evil and its interpretation is the following:
Examine the writings and actions of Dr. King and you find that he always holds up the idea of God as seen in Jesus -- a God who is compassionate, a God who is Love, and his godliness is expressed in a way that shows love, not hate; good, not evil. He doesn’t sink a ship that is overtaken by a hurricane. He doesn’t destroy New Orleans to punish those who live there. Nor did he cause the destruction of the World Trade Center because he was mad at feminists and homosexuals, as the TV evangelist Jerry Falwell said at the time.
When Dr. King’s brother drowned and when his mother was shot, Dr. King grieved and he reached out his hand to comfort the sorrowing family. When a mentally deranged woman stabbed him in a bookstore in NYC, he didn’t bring charges against her, but called for her psychiatric examination and care. When his home was bombed in Montgomery as he was preaching, he rushed home to be with Coretta and their daughter Yoki, then he called on the large crowd that had gathered in the yard to get rid of their weapons and plans for vengeance and stressed the nonviolence of the movement. The last event of his life was planning to  bring together poor people -- black and white, yellow and red -- in a poor peoples’ march on Washington to deal concretely with the evils caused by poverty.
On September 15, 1963, racists planted a bomb in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama -- in those days called ‘bombingham’ because of its violent response to the civil rights movement. The bomb exploded in the girls’ restroom, and four girls preparing to participate in a performance at church were killed when the bomb went off.
Dr. King was asked to preach the eulogy at the funeral. Along with his words of comfort to the grieving families, he referred to the girls as “martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.� He said, “they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering Is redemptive ... The spilt blood of these innocent girls ... may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.�
Then he added “At times, life is hard, as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and painful moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of a river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. ...But through it all, God walks with us. Never forget that God is able 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� (A Testament of Hope, James Washington, editor, pp. 220-223).
Dr. King was right: the death of the four girls led to a redemptive tide that turned many away from resistance to justice and freedom and to begin supporting efforts for human dignity. Hard and awful lessons can and do lead us to a renewal of struggle and the rising of a new dawn of hope.
Let us pray that the terrible suffering in Haiti can lead not only to immediate humanitarian relief but to the kind of long-term efforts that can successfully address the widespread poverty and ecological devastation of that island nation.
As we ponder the meaning of evil, let us resolve to work for the good and to bring healing and life-affirming possibilities even in the midst of tragedy.
[Ed.: This sermon by the Rev. Richard Deats, editor emeritus of Fellowship magazine and past executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, was delivered on Sunday, January 17, 2010 on the occasion of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Spring Valley, New York.]

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