COMPASSION means “to suffer with.” Each of us is capable of embodying compassion, for it is part of what makes us human. Yet few people have the opportunity to actualize it on a global scale as Martin Luther King Jr. did in his lifetime.
In our modern society, bustling with intrusive technology and social frivolity, we rarely witness true compassion. No one wants to suffer. We spend our lives trying to skirt suffering. The doctrines of every major world religion wrestle with its existence in an effort to explain and transcend it.
In her book “Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion: A Contemporary Theodicy,” author Wendy Farley writes that compassion has a “universalizing impulse.” She calls compassion “an enduring disposition,” as opposed to a memorized set of actions that conveniently activates during tragedies.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day each year, journalists, teachers and political leaders focus their energies on remembering one man. Our society is getting farther away from the life of King.
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King’s friends and colleagues are passing away and taking intimate recollections with them. Left to us is the charge of saving his memory. But which memories will we hold on to and how?
There are different ways of remembering King. Will we merely read a speech each January, or will we truly absorb him and let ourselves be changed by him?
And which version of the man do we remember? The one who shared his dream on the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial in front of tens of thousands, or the man who, according to The Washington Post, had “lost his usefulness”?
Which man do you remember on this day, the popular one or the forsaken one?
Civil-rights leader Vincent Harding has written and spoken extensively about the lost aspects of his friend King. This is the radical King who had a vision for occupying the lawn of the White House to hasten a response to the Poor People’s Campaign. The King who declared himself a complete pacifist and stated that U.S. involvement in Vietnam equaled our nation’s spiritual death.
Harding marvels at the fact that King died while in Memphis for the sanitation workers’ strike. This King, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who shook hands with presidents, died while standing in solidarity with the poor.
A stunning pronouncement of compassion.
Tragedy limits our responses. Sometimes the only control we have is the power to resist suffering. It is from this final resistance that redemption comes.
This idea is reflected in Harding’s book “Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero” when he writes: “Love and compassion are not shields against the instruments of physical destruction. Rather, they provide us with the power to stand and face the enemies of light; they generate energy to create perpetual starbursts of brilliant hope, even as we take our last breath.”
We can be good people and we will still die. Moreover, our deaths may be even more tragic than if we had lived less honorably.
Depending on how we approach it, this holiday has the potential to be more than just another day off. It is an invitation to look inward and assess our lives. Are we using our gifts to perpetuate goodness? Are we practicing agape, or spiritual love, to live courageously?
King’s dream is still the universalizing impulse of compassion. The remembrance of King provides us a radical way of moving through crisis and into unbound freedom where we will be redeemed through our resistance to tragedy.
As our brother said, “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
Marie Marchand is the executive director of Friendship House homeless shelter in Mount Vernon and a graduate of The Iliff School of Theology. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org