Several years ago, I was browsing, looking for that quote from Aeschylus on the awful grace of God. Naturally, most links were to Bobby Kennedy's speech on that terrible night in 1968 when he had to inform the gathered crowd of the assassination of Martin Luther King. He was advised not to attend the rally for fear of violence. He went anyway.
As we remember 50 years since the death of Dr. King I think Kennedy's words offer and fitting tribute and reminder. I think that at this very time, with so much tension and violence in the world, these are two voices that must be heard. What Aeschylus said was, "He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God."
He wrote these some 525 years before the birth of Jesus.
He was the father of Greek tragedy and, in play, "Seven Against Thebes," laid the burden of human evil at the feet of human beings. Acts of wickedness, he suggested, arise from ambition, greed, and human frailty.
Human beings are responsible for their own behaviors. Some lead to great suffering, but there is more meaning to suffering than the laws of consequences.Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King both taught the world that practical wisdom, forged in suffering, can and does result in justice, righteousness, and equity.
Both showed us, as well, how powerful movements for justice and peace can arise from the suffering of those who choose to face it with dignity.
King once said that all unmerited suffering is redemptive.
That is the social backdrop for this reminder of a very personal truth. The ancient words of Aeschylus both haunt and heal the soul. They had spoken to Kennedy in his hour of deepest grief. They speak to us today with penetrating insight into the nature of our humanity and the loving kindness of a God who shapes us through adversity.
Aeschylus, the playwright had wrestled with reality and had come to a conclusion that could not be accounted for by his culture or religious setting. We don't want this blessing, but God finds a way to deliver it to us. Wisdom, the kind that makes a difference in the world, the kind that makes a difference in us, is a gift, a gracious bestowal of a gracious God who speaks to us amidst the turmoil of our times and our individual torment.
The world is at war. The economy is in spasm. The future is uncertain.
Yet, we can embrace, against our will and out of our despair, our own pain as a means to a greater end. It is an overused cliché, but we can grow bitter or better. It is our choice. If we grow better, fairer, kinder, more compassionate, and more passionate for justice, the world can also get better – no matter how grim the prognostications of our times may be.
Here is the printed speech by RFK:
Ladies and Gentlemen - I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening. Because...
I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.
For those of you who are black - considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible - you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.
We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization - black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.
For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.
But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
(Interrupted by applause)
So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that's true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love - a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.
But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.
(Interrupted by applause)
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people. Thank you very much. (Applause)
Robert F. Kennedy - April 4, 1968