Redemptive Suffering

This week we commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington. On that day the nation heard what has become one of the most famous speeches—if not the most famous speech—in our history, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. (I love it that the most transformative speech in American history was not given by a president or politician, but by a preacher.)

Most of us have heard short clips of that address, but it is good to go back from time to time to listen to it in its entirety. (You can hear it here.) It reminds us of the magnitude of oppression that was faced by African Americans in 1963. In it you hear Dr. King challenging our country for the most basic of human rights for black Americans—the right to vote, protection from police brutality, and the freedom to fully integrate into the country and participate in its economy.

The footage of that speech still brings tears to my eyes. But it’s not my favorite King speech. Another one that I watch from time to time is the one delivered the night before his death. It is astounding. Dr. King seems to have a sense that his life will soon be coming to an end. So as he acknowledges that he may not get to “the promised land” with them, he affirms his belief that they as a people would indeed arrive at that place. And in the midst of this foreboding, you sense peace and even joy in his voice. But that is not even my favorite King speech.

 A few years ago I ran across a YouTube clip—only two minutes in length—that was recorded in St. Augustine, Florida. In that brief time we hear a succinct presentation of Dr. King’s belief on the power of nonviolence.



You see, Dr. King believed that suffering could be redemptive. He believed the suffering of some could be used by God to save others. This, of course, is at the core of the Christian faith. You cannot read our New Testament without hearing it proclaimed in the life of Jesus and later in the lives of His disciples.

But many Christians have forgotten that. They have forgotten what Jesus taught about the cross and what He taught from the cross. And in that theological amnesia, they have substituted something else. Today most American Christians believe we should depend not on redemptive suffering, but on redemptive violence. They are convinced that ultimately, whatever danger may come to us can and should be met with the might and power of physical force. And this kind of power has been revered to such an extent that it is seen as the solution—a great redemptive force in our world.  So in this most basic way, most American Christians are no different than non-Christians.

These two minutes from Florida are my favorite from Dr. King because they take me back to what it means to be a Christ-follower. Jesus came to show us a better way. He wants to change us—change our hearts, our minds, our actions, our relationships with God and our relationships with one another. If we simply embrace the tired old solutions of the empires of this world, we act as if Jesus never came.

Thank you, Dr. King, for reminding me.