“Overcoming Evil”

January 18, 2015


Isaiah 5:1-10

Romans 12:9-21


“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

I find myself turning to the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. throughout the year, for various reasons. And each January  as his birthday approaches, I take some time to read a few of his sermons, maybe an essay, or an address. In one sense, this is an exercise in humility, because I know that my words will never come close to his.

But it is also an occasion to seek hope in the midst of despair, to find strength and direction for our time. These works, now fifty to sixty years old, continue to speak a fresh word to me and to our nation, especially this January as we continue to deal with the aftermath of police shootings in Ferguson and New York City, Milwaukee and other places where what has been called the militarization of our police forces and the wounds of racial tension are still apparent.

Over fifty years ago King wrote that “Police brutality, with community support, or at best indifference, is a daily experience for Negroes in all too many areas of the South.” We used to hear those words with a smugness that thought, “But not here.” Today, however, we could add, “and in many areas of the North as well.”

Indeed, in King’s later writings he suggested that changes were coming in the North as well as the South. His words in “A Testament of Hope,” published after his death seem as though they were written in recent months:

If you try to tell the people in most Negro communities that the police are their friends, they just laugh at you. Obviously something desperately needs to be done to correct this. I have been particularly impressed by the fact that even in the state of Mississippi, where the FBI did a significant training job with the Mississippi police, the police are much more courteous to Negroes than they are in Chicago or New York….Police must cease being occupation troops in the ghetto and start protecting its residents. Yet very few cities have faced up to this problem and tried to do something about it.[i]

Isabel Wilkerson wrote last Sunday that while recently the most noted cases of police brutality have been in the North, “it is in the South that two recent cases of police shootings of unarmed black people resulted in more vigorous prosecution.” She concludes: “The nation still has far to go, but this, at least, seems cause for hope. It suggests that the South, after decades of wrestling with its history, is now willing to face injustice head on. And it suggests that the North, after decades of insisting that it was fairer and more free, could eventually do the same.”[ii]

Many in the South are doing what I called in my sermon last week the hard work of looking backwards so that they can live forward. We in the North are called to the same task—and we need not look that far back.

Recall, the now familiar story of “Tamir Rice, the black 12-year-old boy shot dead in November in Cleveland. A 911 call had reported someone carrying a ‘probably fake’ gun, and Tamir was carrying a pellet pistol. A white police officer, who had previously been judged unprepared for the stresses of the job, shot Tamir. A video of the event shows the boy’s 14-year-old sister rushing to her fallen brother — and then tackled by police, handcuffed, and placed in a police car a few feet from her dying brother. The officers stood around and gave him no medical aid.”[iii]

We could despair over our situation. When we hear King’s words or those of the prophet Isaiah: “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry,” we could lament that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

We could despair, but instead we are given a charge. We could lament, but instead we are given work to do. The task comes in King’s words that frame the University’s celebration of human rights this year: “We must work unceasingly to lift this nation that we love to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of our humanness.”

We remember that all of King’s work was ministry—working out his Christian faith in tumultuous times and calling others to authentic faith as well. His unbending advocacy for nonviolence looked back through the actions of Gandhi to the teachings of Jesus. And the words of Paul to the early Christians in Rome tell how they—and we—are to live not only in congregations but also in the world: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Calvin suggested that retaliation is in some way only an admission that we have been defeated by the evil that confronts us.  “But if,” he says, “we return good for evil, we display by that very act an invincible constancy of mind.”

We are not, as Paul writes, to be conformed to the world, but rather we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We are given a whole new way of thinking about how we live in and change our society—not by force but by actions that call all people to a higher destiny, raising our nation to a new plateau of compassion. Countering evil with good, confronting violence with peace offers the possibility of repentance and new life to everyone involved.

And here’s some good news. As we pursue the ongoing and often difficult task of overcoming evil with good we are given a song. You know that music can empower and inspire us at times when words alone leave us flat.

We are given a song and by now it is a well-known one.

In September of 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. was at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Highlander was founded over 80 years ago by Myles and Zilphia Horton as an inter-racial center to train labor and civil rights activists. They saw this as a way of living out the social gospel. The good people at Highlander are still at it—our own Jen Sherer, director of the University of Iowa Labor Center, was down there just last November for three days with some twenty other labor educators focused on planning for the future of regional summer schools for women union activists.  

On that day back in 1957, Dr. King gave the keynote speech in celebration of Highlander’s 25th anniversary. And, of course, no celebration is complete without some singing, so Pete Seeger was there with his banjo.

He led the crowd there in singing a song he had learned from Zilpha Horton. She had previously heard the song sung by African American members of the Food, Tobacco, and Agricultural Workers Union from Charleston, South Carolina. They in turn had taken an old slave song, “I'll be all right someday” and revised the song as part of their struggle and sang it on their picket lines. They sang: “We will overcome, and we will win our rights someday.”

As a part of what Arlo Guthrie said Pete called “the folk process,” Seeger changed the word, “will” to “shall,” and all the people sang together: “Deep in my heart, I do believe, We shall overcome, someday.”[iv]

After the celebration, King was in the car, humming the tune to himself. “There’s something about that song that haunts you,” he said to those with him. [v]

“We Shall Overcome” became a sort of unofficial anthem of both the labor movement and the Civil Rights movement. It has been sung around the world, which was certainly Seeger’s hope. Telling the story of singing for some young Lutheran church people in Sundance, Idaho, Seeger said: “there were some older people who were mistrustful of my lefty politics.  They said: ‘Who are you intending to overcome?’ I said: ‘Well, in Selma, Alabama they’re probably thinking of Chief Pritchett; they will overcome. And I am sure Dr. King is thinking of the system of segregation across the whole country, not just the South. For me, it means the entire world. We’ll overcome our tendencies to solve our problems with killing and learn to work together to bring this world together.”[vi]

I used to feel kind of uncomfortable singing this song. Was this just one more case of cultural appropriation? What was I—a middle-class, white male—doing, singing a song about overcoming?

Then a few years ago I got some help from what struck me at the time as a very unlikely source, a speech by President Lyndon Johnson back in 1965.

Some here will remember: On March 7, civil rights marchers were beaten in Selma, Alabama in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”  A week later the president addressed a joint session of Congress calling for the voting rights of African Americans to be ensured by law.

I saw a film of this speech, one of Johnson’s great moments.

Using the language of the day, Johnson told the nation: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem….What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

“And,” Johnson concluded, “We shall overcome.”[vii]

A young John Lewis, whose skull had been fractured on Bloody Sunday, was watching that speech with Martin Luther King, Jr. Lewis later wrote of Johnson: “His were the words of a statesman and, more, they were the words of a poet,” adding, “Dr. King must have agreed. He wiped away a tear at the point where Johnson said the words ‘We shall overcome.’”[viii]

This is still the vision for all people.

This is still the task for all people.

This is still the song for all people.

All of us face evil within ourselves and beyond ourselves that needs to be overcome by our powerful actions for the good. And the promise is that we shall do just that.

This vision, this task, this song is not about an empty triumphalism. It speaks to us as much in times of anguish and struggle as in joy and victory. Any individual or any group of people who seek to overcome evil with good will encounter resistance—sometimes fierce and violent resistance. We know our own history and recall Good Friday, when good was not the victor.  This is what King was getting at the first time he used this song in a public speech, which happened to be an address to the General Synod of the United Church of Christ in Chicago in 1965. “Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross,” King said. “But one day that same Christ will rise up. In such a sense, right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. So I can sing more than ever before, ‘We shall overcome.’”

[i] MLK, “A Testament of Hope,”  in A Testament of Hope, pg. 325.

[ii] Isabel Wilkerson, “When Will the North Face Its Racism?” NYT, Jan. 11, 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/opinion/sunday/when-will-the-north-face-its-racism.html?_r=0

[iii] Nicholas Kristof, “Race, the Police and the Propaganda,” NYT, Jan. 11, 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-race-the-police-and-the-propaganda.html

[iv] Peter Dreier,“The Little-Known Story of 'We Shall Overcome'”, Huffington Post  08/29/2013, Updated: 10/29/2013 5 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-dreier/we-shall-overcome_b_3835195.html

[viii] Noah Adams, “The Inspiring Force Of 'We Shall Overcome,'” NPR, August 28, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/08/28/216482943/the-inspiring-force-of-we-shall-overcome.