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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2328

First published: New York: Harper & Row, 1963

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Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Sermons

Core issue(s): African Americans; connectedness; freedom and free will; good vs. evil; hope; justice; love; morality; nonviolent resistance; obedience and disobedience; problem of evil; racism; social action


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 that

in 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 that

when 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 God’s image, human life is good, but it is also stained and shattered by destructive powers. King had no comprehensive theory that ultimately explained why evil exists, although he did point to humanity’s abuse of freedom as a crucial factor. Instead he focused on the structure of evil, on God’s action and our human responsibility in coping with it.

“Evil,” asserted King, “carries the seed of its own destruction.” Its forces are powerful and stubborn, never voluntarily relinquishing their hold. King argued, “evil cannot permanently organize itself.” Its nature is to divide, separate, and negate. This structure suggests a sense in which evil is self-destructive. It will not destroy itself completely, he admitted. New obstacles will impede us repeatedly. The consuming force of evil, however, does not exist unchecked. Internally unstable, it is capable of being subdued by the powers of goodness—justice, freedom, and especially love—which remain vital however threatened they may be at times. “Looking back,” King could say as he surveyed the battle against American racism, “we see the forces of segregation gradually dying on the seashore.”

As for God’s action and humanity’s responsibility in coping with evil, King held that God is committed to freedom. God permits evil as part of the price to be paid for freedom in the world, but he also contended that God did not will—directly or indirectly—any specific instance of evil. God’s commitment to freedom, however, does have some important ramifications for the way in which God permits evil to exist. That commitment means not only that people can diverge from the course of action that God wants them to pursue but also that trying to discern and follow God’s will entails conscious choices. Furthermore, if divergence from the will of God occurs, God does not always use every available means to set things right.

Not that God is unconcerned about justice, insisted King. God is committed to justice but within the context of freedom. God’s purpose for human life seems to entail our attempt to establish a community of love through our creative use of freedom, which includes both controlling the potential for evil in human existence and atoning for evil actions that do occur. “Therefore,” King contended, “God cannot at the same time impose his will upon his children and also maintain his purpose for man.” Yet God will not allow human beings to make a total shambles of creation. Evil is kept in check partly by its very nature. Moreover, although God will not do for us what we can do for ourselves, when people turn to God in faith, they can renew courage and strength to attempt what is just and good.

The universe is formed and finally controlled by the love of God. That love’s reality and power, moreover, are revealed with special clarity in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Love builds up and transforms life for the good. It also conquers death; the grave is not our end. “Love,” said King, “is the most durable power in the world. This creative force, so beautifully exemplified in the life of our Christ, is the most potent instrument available in mankind’s quest for peace and security.”

If only men and women will give themselves to love, the universe is structured to favor that ideal. Conversely, King was also convinced that hate and violence breed more of the same even if they sow the seeds of their own destruction at the same time. The forces of evil must not be allowed to do business as usual; resistance to them is indispensable. As he pursued the cause of racial justice, King urged his followers to take up nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. The authority of these strategies, he asserted, resides in their ability to expose and thwart evil without sacrificing persons. Suffering may be experienced in the course of such resistance, but this suffering is redemptive. It can strike the human conscience and thus produce a defense of freedom and justice. Such suffering can also lead to repentance in those who cause it.

No matter how much he had reason to despair, King retained a deep and abiding faith in the goodness and power of God. “Our God is able,” he liked to say, a conviction that provided the title for one of the most popular sermons in Strength to Love. At the same time, King always stressed God’s decision to create persons with freedom and to respect the integrity and power that freedom entails. God gives us power and then respects it. Such a God, underscored King, is one who takes risks. Such a God recognizes that things may not always function smoothly and that injustices may occur, perhaps even on a massive scale. This God apparently has a high degree of patience and self-control. When things are not going well, God could intervene directly and dramatically. If, however, King is correct, God’s actions in the world are more indirect and subtle. God instills courage when people ask in faith, and God gives renewed strength when people trust and call upon God to support righteous ends. King notes that the kingdom of God for us is “not yet,” and for now this life remains a scene of struggle and suffering. Improvements, however, are possible. Oppression can be relieved. Freedom and justice can be extended when, with God’s help, we find strength to love.

Reviewing the racial strife that wracked Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960’s, King once observed that it was not the brutality of bad people but the silence of good people that was the greater tragedy. As a religious man, King knew that some forms of silence show a healthy respect for forces beyond our control, while others can restore human energies and prepare them for effective use—the life of prayer and the retreat for quiet meditation are not to be ignored. King also understood, however, that silence can mean failure of nerve in facing issues that do have solutions. He counted on concerned men and women to keep trying their best, not only with words but with actions. Evil is mighty, but King added that God is good and almighty. He wanted that conviction to motivate the love that is needed if we are to create a just society and thereby vindicate God’s decision to respect human freedom.

Christian Themes

King’s message of courage and hope was rooted in the example of Jesus Christ: As exemplified in Christ, love is the most durable power in the world. The universe is governed by a loving, personal God who is the companion of those who struggle for justice. Evil cannot permanently organize itself, for it contains the seeds of its own destruction. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we see that unearned suffering is redemptive and that evil is overcome with good. God is able to subdue all evil, but God calls on humankind to cooperate in this task and strengthens those who do so. Hence, when combined with Mahatma Gandhi’s method of nonviolent resistance, the Christian doctrine of love is a potent force in the struggle for freedom.

Sources for Further Study

  • Ansbro, John J. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1982. Analyzes King’s thought, particularly his strategy of nonviolence, with special reference to the formative philosophical and religious influences on his outlook.
  • Baldwin, Lewis V., with Rufus Burrow, Jr., Barbara A. Holmes, and Susan Holmes Winfield. The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Boundaries of Law, Politics, and Religion. Foreword by Clayborne Carson. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002. Discusses King’s relationship to Christianity and politics, the development of his ethics, his objective moral order and moral law, and how all this expanded to a global stage. Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Deats, Richard. Martin Luther King, Jr., Spirit-Led Prophet: A Biography. Foreword by Coretta Scott King. Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 2003. This biography examines King’s life, emphasizing his faith, religious beliefs, and spirituality. Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Lincoln, C. Eric, ed. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Profile. New York: Hill & Wang, 1984. Useful insights into King’s life and thought are brought together by a leading interpreter of black religious experience in the United States.
  • Moses, Greg. Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. Foreword by Leonard Harris. New York: Guilford Press, 1997. This work focuses less on King as an activist and orator than on his role as an immensely influential intellectual and philosopher.
  • Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper & Row, 1982. A carefully done biography of a skilled scholar and writer.
  • Washington, James M., ed. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986. A splendid collection, including public speeches, interviews, articles, excerpts from books (including Strength to Love), and autobiographical reflections. Includes a selected bibliography.

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