Mika Edmondson: Martin Luther King Jr. and the power of unearned suffering

The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C. Bigstock / Actionsports

The civil rights leader’s understanding of suffering -- and its redemptive power -- offers a source of hope for the church in the struggle against injustice, says the pastor and author.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s theodicy -- his understanding of the nature of human suffering -- offers the church a source of strength and hope in the struggle against injustice today, says the Rev. Mika Edmondson.

Drawing upon a 250-year-old tradition in the black church, King understood human suffering as offering the possibility of redemption, most vividly displayed in the cross of Christ, said Edmondson, the author of “The Power of Unearned Suffering: The Roots and Implications of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Theodicy.”

“It is the power to bring about a redemptive transformation not only in the sufferer but also in the person inflicting the suffering,” Edmondson said. “It’s a power that we see revealed primarily at the cross of Jesus, when Christ himself set an example of not passively accepting suffering but actively and nonviolently engaging injustice and suffering when it came his way.”

Edmondson’s book is in part a response to critics who have argued that such a doctrine of redemptive suffering creates a passivity in the face of suffering and injustice. Instead, Edmondson said, King’s doctrine drove activism in the civil rights movement.

“King was very critical of passivity in the face of injustice,” Edmondson said. “The fact that all of this is rooted in the cross shows that this is really about active engagement, not passive acquiescence.”

King’s understanding of suffering, Edmondson said, is a reminder that “God’s ‘yes’ will always have the final say over our ‘no.’ God’s justice will always have the final say over our injustice.”

Edmondson is the pastor of New City Fellowship, an Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Calvin Seminary.

He spoke recently with Faith & Leadership about King and the power of unearned suffering. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What was Dr. King’s theodicy? What was his take on why people suffer?

Martin Luther King Jr. inherited a long history of struggles with this question. When African-Americans came here centuries ago in the bellies of slave ships, they struggled with the question, “Why am I suffering in this way? If God can prevent my suffering and rescue me from suffering, why am I struggling in this way?”

The question has been at the heart of the African-American experience: Why do people suffer?

Dr. King would say that although suffering itself is not good, it presents an opportunity for redemptive engagement. The Lord has allowed suffering so that we might engage it in a way that bears witness to his redemptive hope and his redemptive purposes -- not only in our lives, but even in the lives of our oppressors and in the systems and institutions in which we live and exist.

That’s what redemptive suffering is getting at. Given the reality of suffering, God has enabled his image bearers to point to something greater.

That’s a powerful thing for many reasons. It doesn’t confine the identity of the victim to merely “victim.” It doesn’t dismiss the pain of being a victim, but it says that our suffering will not have the last say in our identity, and neither will our oppressor. God has given us agency, even in the midst of the worst situations.

Q: The title of the book is “The Power of Unearned Suffering.” So what is that? What is the power of unearned suffering?

It is the power to bring about a redemptive transformation not only in the sufferer but also in the person inflicting the suffering. It’s a power that we see revealed primarily at the cross of Jesus, when Christ himself set an example of not passively accepting suffering but actively and nonviolently engaging injustice and suffering when it came his way.

You see in the garden of Gethsemane a number of responses to suffering. One is a passive acquiescence, where many of the apostles flee. Another is violent retaliation, where Peter responds with violence. But Jesus as the Messiah gave a distinct revelation of God’s intention for us to engage our suffering, not through violent retaliation or passive acquiescence, but through nonviolent or agapeic engagement -- an active, loving, self-sacrificial engagement with suffering in order to expose injustice, and ultimately end it.

Q: You write in the book that King didn’t pull this out of thin air but drew upon a 250-year-old tradition in the black church. Tell us about that.

As I mentioned earlier, the problem of evil and suffering has been at the heart of the black experience in America. African-Americans struggled to reconcile God’s goodness and power with the brutalities of the slave system, the indignities of Jim Crow, the horrors of the lynching tree and on and on and on. Without the benefit of formal education or theological education, enslaved African-Americans wrestled deeply with life’s complexities and contradictions and came up with amazing answers.

They most often affirmed the goodness and the power of God even in the face of suffering. You see those kinds of hopeful responses in, for instance, the spirituals. Spirituals are a theodical expression. They are theodicy set to music; they hold hope and agony together. That’s the kind of unique theodical contribution that the black church has made to American theology and Christianity.

King was deeply impacted by spirituals. He listened to them for hours. But he was not merely enjoying the music, although that was part of it; he was actually learning theology. He was learning theology, this belief in God’s goodness, that God is able to “make a way out of no way.” That’s a black church idiom. It’s an expression of hope that God is able to take what we might call the raw material of “no way” and fashion out of it a way to form hope and to bring forth a redemptive outcome.

These are expressions of theodicy. Historical figures like David Walker and his famous “Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World,” his [friend] Maria Stewart, Alexander Crummell and even W.E.B. Du Bois had a very strong sense that God’s overarching purposes were being worked out even through the harsh realities of African-Americans here in the United States.

And King inherited this hopeful approach to suffering.

Q: In a way, isn’t the very existence of the black church an example of what you’re talking about, a testament to that redemptive power? Because it would have been a very human response to slavery to reject all Christianity.

Absolutely. Especially as it was presented off the lips of slaveholders, right?

It’s amazing, because the power is in the Word itself. Despite the negative intentions of slaveholders, the glory and the righteousness of Christ was able to bring transformation and light to the hearts, minds and souls of enslaved people and to show them God’s intention for them despite what slaveholders said.

The black church itself is a theodical institution, and its perseverance in the face of great hypocrisy and great suffering is a testament to the power of unearned suffering, to the power of the Lord’s ability to uphold his people, and also to people’s ability to maintain hope in the midst of hard situations.

Q: How did all of this play out concretely in King’s ministry?

At first, King was convinced that this could work on an individual level -- that individuals in their personal relationships could engage suffering in such a way that it would expose injustice and maybe even bring transformation to particular people, one on one. But he was not convinced that this could work socially; it was Gandhi’s example that convinced him of that.

Many people think that King got his commitment to nonviolence from Gandhi. Well, no, he got his methodology from Gandhi, his confidence that this could work on a social level. But this teaching and this doctrine, he got from Jesus, and applied it to the social situation of blacks in America in the 1950s and ’60s in the civil rights movement.

The entire philosophy of nonviolence is rooted in a public appropriation of the theology of the cross. What you saw Christ doing, engaging suffering nonviolently at the cross, is exactly what you saw King doing. It’s what he did leading young people to go before Bull Connor’s firehoses and attack dogs. When they went to segregated lunch counters and put themselves in harm’s way with a commitment to remain nonviolent, they did it with a confidence that nonviolent engagement can bring a redemptive outcome because of the cross of Christ.

Q: Some have argued that Dr. King’s doctrine of redemptive suffering can create a passivity in the presence of suffering. To what extent is the book a response to that critique?

Absolutely it is.

One critique is from black humanists like Anthony Pinn and the late William R. Jones, who suggest that theism itself and particularly redemptive suffering theodicies inculcate a passivity that causes people to wait on God to do for them what they ought to be doing for themselves.

My dissertation and this book are a response to those critiques.

I basically looked at the history to see if that claim bears out. Did the redemptive suffering theodicy inculcate a passivity among the civil rights activists, or did it actually drive their activism?

I think we can make the case that it drove their activism. King was very critical of passivity in the face of injustice. The fact that all of this is rooted in the cross shows that this is really about active engagement, not passive acquiescence.

King found himself constantly negotiating and articulating between those two extremes, passive acquiescence on one end, violent retaliation on the other. He saw that in the communities where he lived and worked.

A lot of people told him, “This is too much. You’re going too fast; we need to just wait or not do anything at all.”

King was critical of those people for not engaging the injustice that was right before them. And when he criticized white moderates as one of the great enemies of justice, he was pointing out passive acquiescence. On the other hand, you had black militants that would say, “Let’s just take up arms and meet violence with violence.” And of course, that was not acceptable either.

Q: Explain the difference between passivity and nonviolence. They’re not the same thing.

That’s right. King would say that nonviolence is very active and very disciplined.

Q: Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, knowing that Alabama state troopers were waiting at the other end, for example, is hardly passive.

That’s exactly right. That’s what made it so intimidating. They realized that it is a creative engagement with suffering. You are thoughtfully and lovingly exposing the injustice of a system in such a way that it brings light on sin and evil, and you are doing it for the benefit of your neighbors.

Q: How does the redemptive power of suffering speak to our time and to the church today?

A number of ways.

One, it is a biblical theodicy. It’s a biblical, cruci-centric approach to engaging suffering, one that is rooted in the cross and that sees Christ engaging with suffering. That is the revelation that lays claim on our engagement with suffering. Christians should be empowered by that. Christ has shown us something that we otherwise wouldn’t know -- how to engage suffering to the glory of God.

Second, it calls us to action. We cannot sit passively by and acquiesce in the face of injustice and suffering. We have to engage it, and engage it lovingly. We can’t choose to pick up arms and retaliate in violence.

Third, in King’s theodicy, we cannot dismiss suffering. We cannot downplay it or pretend it’s not there or deny it. To actively engage suffering, you have to have a critical analysis of suffering. You have to understand that it’s there. As a church, we can’t put our head in the sand and pretend that the suffering of our neighbors doesn’t exist or that we’re not called to address it.

Redemptive suffering doesn’t allow us to do that. It calls us to be aware of the sufferings of our neighbors and active in seeking to bring relief and justice.

It also guides us in how we are to do that -- nonviolently, but also creatively. King often would dramatize the suffering of people by staging marches or pray-ins. It was deliberately calculated drama, intended for public exposure. That’s why you dramatize something, to expose it so that those in power cannot deny it.

The civil rights movement took the development of network television to dramatize suffering that had been covered up for generations. Some people thought King was adding suffering [in doing that], but what he was really doing was exposing suffering that was already there.

He understood that there would be violence in certain places where he went. In some ways, he was counting on it, because he wanted to expose the daily indignities and violence that were always there. That way, the masses who remained passive or indifferent or insensitive would have to grapple with the true brutalities of racism in America. They couldn’t deny it. That was so important, and that’s something that we need to know today.

People of faith need to be inspired by that example -- by King, but also Jesus. This is what Jesus does at the cross. He’s not crucified in a corner. He makes a spectacle of these principalities of injustice, of evil, of wickedness. He exposes it, and in that way, he brings an end to it.

This is part of what guided the civil rights movement. They wanted to make a spectacle, because evil flourishes in darkness and masks itself beneath the veneer of normalcy.

Many people in the South said, “Our negroes are fine; they’re not complaining.” Yet King would go down there, and the marches and protests made it obvious that the situation was not fine.

Q: Anything else?

Yes. Hope is huge. A lot of people are afraid to tackle issues of race, because frankly, they don’t have hope. They look at how big and long-standing these issues are and how people have suffered so deeply and how things are not getting better as quickly as we would like.

People can lose hope. But if it teaches us anything, King’s theodicy teaches us that we should have hope in the face of the fiercest forms of injustice and oppression, that the cross of Jesus Christ, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, shows us that God’s “yes” will always have the final say over our “no.” God’s justice will always have the final say over our injustice.

So people should continue to fight, continue to nonviolently engage and dig into the issues and pursue justice for our neighbors, with the hope that God is with us in the struggle and that God’s justice will prevail.