By TOM REICHERT, Special Contributor | Published February 10, 2005
In his 2005 World Day of Peace message, “Overcome Evil With Good,” Pope John Paul II writes, “No man or woman of good will can renounce the struggle to overcome evil with good. This fight can be fought effectively only with the weapons of love.” He states, “The inner logic of Christian love, which in the Gospel is the living source of moral goodness, leads even to the love of one’s enemies: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink’ (Rom12:20).”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tried that. In his 1967 Christmas sermon on peace, Dr. King proclaimed, “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering…Do to us what you will, and we will still love you…throw us in jail, and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and as difficult as it is, we will still love you…But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”
The irony is that in the end Dr. King might have done more to liberate the “oppressor” than even the “oppressed,” as in the end, when we reap what we sow, the victimizer is always worse off than the victim (Mt: 25; Church in the Modern World, 27).
In his 2005 World Day of Peace Message, Pope John Paul II tells us once more, “To attain the good of peace, there must be a clear and conscious acknowledgment that violence is an unacceptable evil and that it never solves problems. ‘Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity. Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings.’”
Dr. King believed in nonviolence, but the choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence per se, but ultimately between nonviolence and nonexistence. King recognized that the problems of racism, economic exploitation and war (one might add sexism, ethnocentrism, and all crimes against humanity—such as terrorism, torture, genocide and abortion)—are all tied together because they all undermine human dignity. Evil is not a segregated but an integrated entity, and like Jesus, King realized that entrenched evil, both in individual hearts and collective social structures, cannot be eradicated without a “creative tension” necessary for conversion, for “evil” rarely voluntarily relinquishes power. And so we must go up to Jerusalem, embrace nonviolent direct action, and speak truth to power.
This creative tension is necessary not only to transform society but the church as well. King writes, “The erstwhile sanction by the church of slavery, racial segregation, war, and economic exploitation is testimony to the fact that the church…at times has preserved that which is immoral and unethical.”
Vatican II reminds us, “Every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language, or religion is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent” (Church in the Modern World, 29). Our bishops teach, “No one may claim the name Christian and be comfortable in the face of the hunger, homelessness, insecurity, and injustice found in the country and world” (Economic Justice For All, 27).
Pope John Paul II states, in Centesimus Annus, “The social message of the Gospel must not be considered a theory but above all else, a basis and motivation for action.”
Problem is, more often than not, the cross is the stumbling block. Dr. King was stabbed, had his house bombed, his family threatened, lived under constant death threats, and was finally murdered.
Through it all, King believed that “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.” Why? Because he believed that Jesus, the Son of God, who personifies this unconditional love—and hung on a tree for it—is the final word.
If he’s right, his question becomes our question. Where do we go from here?
Tom Reichert is the pastoral associate for outreach at Sacred Heart Church, Atlanta.