The journal of the Center for Documentary Arts, a nonprofit initiative to bear witness to suffering and promote the common good through the arts. At the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice, the Center brings together makers and thinkers whose work advances beauty, compassion, collaboration, dignity, and mercy.

03 May 2011

"I Will Not Rejoice in the Death of One"

In the aftermath of the US killing of Osama bin Laden, a quote attributed to Martin Luther King has been making the rounds in cyberspace. Here's how it came to me via Facebook:

Shared from a friend: MLK expresses the ideal: "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." -Martin Luther King Jr.

Curious to know when and in what context King said something so startlingly congruent with my own feelings today, I went — where else? — to Google. But all I could find were variations of the quote, disembodied from any larger source.

Then I found this, by Megan McArdle of the Atlantic: Out of Osama's Death, a Fake Quotation is Born. "Something about it just strikes me as off," McArdle says about the quote. She goes on to assert she can't find the quote anywhere on the Internet, and concludes it was made up.

But not so fast. Sifting through the rubble we call the World Wide Web, I found evidence that contradicted McArdle, at least to an extent. Someone referenced a passage from King's book Strength to Love, a collection of meditations on nonviolence he published in 1963. In a chapter titled "Loving Your Enemies," King did express at least part of the quote. Here's the section, which follows a discussion of the differing Greek terms for love, erosphila, and the one King is interested in, agape, which he defines as "creative, redemptive goodwill for all men." I took a screenshot of the text from Google Books:

So the quote making the rounds isn't entirely specious. Intrigued now with what else the Internet would yield, I dug a bit deeper and discovered an earlier evocation of the same idea by King, using much the same language. On Martin Luther King Online, I found the text of a sermon the master preacher delivered November 17, 1957, also titled "Loving Your Enemies." The passage in question comes up in the lesson of a modern parable:

I think I mentioned before that sometime ago my brother and I were driving one evening to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didn’t dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: "I know what I’m going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I’m going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power." And I looked at him right quick and said: "Oh no, don’t do that. There’d be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway."
Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights, and that is the trouble, isn’t it? That as all of the civilizations of the world move up the highway of history, so many civilizations, having looked at other civilizations that refused to dim the lights, and they decided to refuse to dim theirs. And Toynbee tells that out of the twenty-two civilizations that have risen up, all but about seven have found themselves in the 
junkheap of destruction. It is because civilizations fail to have sense enough to dim the lights. And if somebody doesn’t have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world, the whole of our civilization will be plunged into the abyss of destruction. And we will all end up destroyed because nobody had any sense on the highway of history. Somewhere somebody must have 
some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.
So this concept of darkness begetting darkness, hate begetting hate, was an idea MLK had been developing over the years, borrowing from and slightly modifying his phrasing as he went along. Knowing this, I'm not at all sure King did not say the words quoted by my Facebook friend. He may well have spoken them, and if he did, my guess is it would have been near the end of his life, when he had turned his attention to broader issues of peace and justice, and was speaking out against the Vietnam War. Gut feeling.
All this is by way of broaching the larger issue, which is how to feel in the wake of Osama bin Laden's swift and sudden death. And in this I find myself torn. Viscerally, I cannot regret bin Laden's fate. Not long ago, I listened to Homer's Iliad, the whole long poem, while driving back and forth two hours a day to a work project. As Homer graphically demonstrates, bloody vengence is as much a part of our Western tradition as Plato and Pythagoras. Every one of the great Greek heroes took what you could only call sadistic delight in vanquishing the enemy in a stunning array of brutal, violent actions. Something there is in mankind that loves revenge. I'm just — I don't know what, American enough? male enough? human enough? — to thrill a little at the idea of our guys storming Osama's compound and taking him out.
But I get no lasting satisfaction from my own thrill. It comes back on me with a bitter taste. In my heart, I agree with Martin Luther King, however much of that opening sentiment he actually uttered. The reason the quote has gone viral is because there is wisdom in it, wisdom born of compassion, dignity, and respect for human life. The demands of love require us to, at the very least, be sober in the face of what took place in Pakistan on the first of May. In the 1957 sermon, King addresses this concept of love:
You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.
And this is what Jesus means, I think, in this very passage when he says, "Love your enemy." And it’s significant that he does not say, "Like your enemy." Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things 
they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, "Love your enemy." This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.
It is not necessary that we grieve for bin Laden, but I do not see how we can rejoice either. I wish we would have taken him alive, brought him back to this country and put him on trial, proved to the world that we are a country of laws, as we did in Nuremberg. There are conflicting reports from Washington in this point; some high level sources say taking him alive was an option, others say it was not. I hope the former is true, and that this wasn't an assassination mission. In any case, to revel in so violent a death is poisonous to our national soul. On this point, King was powerfully eloquent in 1957. He understood hatred as being most destructive to those who exercise it:
There’s another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. . . . There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate. He comes to the point that he becomes a pathological case. For the person who hates, you can stand up and see a person and that person can be beautiful, and you will call them ugly. For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does. You can’t see right. The symbol of objectivity is lost. Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.

A decade later, in 1967, as riots were tearing US cities apart, King reaffirmed his belief in nonviolence:

I'm concerned about justice. I'm concerned about brotherhood. I'm concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about these, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer but you can't murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar but you can't establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can't murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.

As we stand proud in this blow stuck against international terrorism, we might try standing tall too, and denounce hatred in all its forms, in thought, word, action, and reaction. That includes the varieties of hatred we are now seeing around this country wearing the cloak of patriotism.   



Anonymous said...

Thank you! I was looking for the information you found. And your comments on the situation are spot on!

Timothy Farrell said...

This further reinforces your point...

From "Where Are We Going: Chaos or Community?" by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."

susan t. landry said...

thank you, Tim, for this in-depth exploration; i saw the King quote also, on FB, promulgated by a number of my friends, and as the sentiment felt real, didn't question it. Maybe because i am a woman, i did not feel that thrill of victory; just a sense of exhaustion, and trepidation, of where the next turn of the wheel would lead. i like very much, btw, King's distinction between "like" and "love" when it comes to one's enemies.

Freckles said...

Thank you for posting this. To me it feels disrespectful to misquote one of the most influential men in our history. Hopefully the truth will be seen.

Country Mouse said...

Thanks so much both for the research and for the great quotes. If only MLK's spirit prevailed.

Jose said...

I wrote on this and found the original person who started the whole thing!

Laura Marie said...

A friend of mine sent me a link to your blog after I posted my own blog on the subject of Bin Laden's death and my reaction to the celebration ( and, because I too posted the quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr.

This was so beautifully written. Thank you so much for taking the time to research Dr. King's words and for sharing your feelings on the matter.

Michael said...

Thank you so so so much :)

Vespersparrow said...

Dear Tim, thank you for the seriousness of this piece, and the detective work. I have a peach pit in my throat on the subject of the assassination of Bin Laden, and am afraid to open my liberal Pandora's box of rants about US duplicity, who knew what when, why it was it was decided to murder him now and to whose advantage. And do we have any idea who is going to rush into the breach, that abhorrent vacuum?

I have an newsreel in my mind, of all the white-haired walrus-moustached generals with their swords and their chests mosaic-ed with medals from World War I, the War to End All Wars. They're sitting on a dais with royalty, and the wounded soldiers are parading by and saluting, and all the women in the crowd are waving lace hankies. It's always the old generals who send the young up out of the trenches to die in No Man's Land. And the US ordinance and armies spreading across the world like a virus after the Treaty of Versailles. . .

Oh, Lord, forgive me, Tim, don't post this if it is way off subject. I just wish there were a way to be a citizen Conscientious Objector (yes, supposedly the vote does that--ha!) or that the Hague could take the US to task for the last 100 years of empire.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for supplying the research and the thoughtful words. It was very helpful for me, altough many of my acquaintances aren't prepared to listen or discuss the sentiments. Once again it's either you are with us (in celebrating Osama's death) or you are (totally) against us. It makes me sad.

Dan said...

Well researched. I appreciate the comments, and it reminds me of the value of perspective as voiced by Solomon in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes:

15 I have seen everything in this meaningless life, including the death of good young people and the long life of wicked people. 16 So don’t be too good or too wise! Why destroy yourself? 17 On the other hand, don’t be too wicked either. Don’t be a fool! Why die before your time? 18 Pay attention to these instructions, for anyone who fears God will avoid both extremes.


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