More than seventy million human beings were uprooted, enslaved, or killed in the twentieth century alone. What happened to those victims? Is death—utter annihilation—their end? How should we appraise such wasting of human life? Considering such questions as these moves one to reflect on the significance of evil. Why does it exist? Where does it lead? Can evil be overcome?
Raising his voice against a world that wasted human life through racial hatred, poverty, and violence, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spent his life wrestling with those questions in word and deed. King outlined part of the problem of evil in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963):Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
Later, on August 28, 1963, King spoke at a massive civil rights rally in Washington, D.C. He proclaimed in his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech thatin spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
His dream, King concluded, was thatwhen we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!”
As an orator and a spiritual-political leader for his nation, King may never have had a finer moment than on that summer day in the American capital. The point is arguable, however, because the Sunday sermons that King preached regularly were brilliant and inspiring, too. Urged to publish a sampling of them from the period 1955-1963, King expressed misgivings because “a sermon is not an essay to be read but a discourse to be heard.” Nevertheless, the publication of Strength to Love more than fulfilled his hope that “a message may come to life for readers of these printed words.”
King’s sermons make clear that evil is activity, sometimes inactivity, and thus a manifestation of power. Evil powers are those that waste. That is, evil happens whenever power is used to ruin or squander life, or whenever it is not used to forestall those results. The kind of evil that most concerned King ignores and violates the worth of individuals. Everyone inflicts that sort of pain to some degree. Yet some people, and especially some societies, are more perverse than others. We measure them by the extent to which their actions waste human existence.
As he combated evil, King found it meaningful to affirm his love for life in Christian terms. Through Jesus, preached King, God gives reason to trust that life beyond death is in the future for people of faith. God also, however, intends that this hope should give us courage to take action now for justice, dignity, and freedom. Affirming that the world and human life are God’s creation, King saw God at work in the world, striving with men and women to achieve a community in which racism has no place. The fatherhood of God, King frequently emphasized, implies the interdependence—the brotherhood and sisterhood—of humankind. All people, wrote King, “are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
Within this framework of God’s love and human interdependence, King attempted to determine evil’s significance. Nothing is more obvious, he thought, than the presence of evil in the universe, its chief manifestation being our brutalizing tendency to hate and oppress one another. King saw every person’s existence as a mixture of and a struggle between good and evil. Created in...
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