Martin Luther King Jr., Compassion Fatigue, and God the Insomniac

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As the Montgomery bus boycott extended from days to weeks to months, as the simmering anger of the white community began to boil, as more and more people made death threats, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s courage began to fade.

On Friday night, Jan. 27, 1956, Dr. King came home late after a tense meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association and found his family asleep. While he was pacing and pondering the events of the day, the phone rang. An angry voice said: “Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.”

Dr. King hung up the phone and walked despondently to his kitchen. He put on a fresh pot of coffee and sank into a chair at his kitchen table. What happened next, he described in his book Stride Toward Freedom: “I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God.”

Dr. King found himself at a place where so many other would-be prophets have found themselves: compassion fatigue. Since biblical times, prophets have arisen in every generation to protest the systems that abuse the vulnerable and exploit the created order. Yet their courage inevitably fades in the face of fierce resistance and the failure to bring about real change. Eventually, these prophets grow weary, and they cannot sustain their erstwhile compassion.

Abraham Joshua Heschel was, to my knowledge, the first theologian to describe the dynamics of compassion fatigue. He began writing his now famous book, The Prophets, in the 1930s when so many people were complacent as Hitler rose to power. In the first chapter, “What Manner of Man is the Prophet,” he described God’s fierce and inexhaustible love for all his creatures. This was the fierce love that filled the hearts of the prophets and compelled them to rise up when God’s loved ones were being abused. He contrasted this fierce love of the prophets with the faint love of the rest of us, the would-be prophets:

“We and the prophets have no language in common. To us the moral state of society, for all its stains and spots, seems fair and trim; to the prophet it is dreadful. So many deeds of charity are done, so much decency radiates day and night; yet to the prophet satiety of the conscience is prudery and flight from responsibility. Our standards are modest; our sense of injustice tolerable, timid; our moral indignation impermanent; yet human violence is interminable, unbearable, permanent.”

Who could bear living in a state of disgust day and night? The conscience builds its confines, is subject to fatigue, longs for comfort, lulling, soothing. Yet those who are hurt, and the Holy One who inhabits eternity, neither slumbers nor sleeps.

With these famous words, Heschel identified one of most underappreciated attributes of God in all of scripture, one that those of us steeped in the Reformed tradition have never pondered: God, the Insomniac. Jesus claimed for himself this same attribute when the Pharisees and teachers of the law complained that he was associating with despicable people. He told them he was the Good Shepherd who could not rest until all the lost sheep were safely in the fold.

At his kitchen table that night, Dr. King could neither slumber nor sleep, so he turned to God, the Insomniac, in prayer. Years later, the words still vivid in his memory, he revealed to his followers this very private moment, a desperate prayer, and an epiphany: “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone. At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

This kitchen table epiphany changed Dr. King’s life. That inner voice kept speaking to him, and he overcame his fears and fatigue by drawing on the fierce love of God who never slumbers nor sleeps and who was forever at his side.

Three days after the epiphany, when a bomb exploded on the porch of his house and an angry mob of supporters were arming themselves to seek vengeance, Dr. King stood on the bombed-out porch and addressed the mob: “We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop because God is with this movement. Go home with this glorious faith and radiant assurance.”

Looking back years later, Dr. King would say this about God’s presence in his life:

“I conclude by saying that each of us must keep faith in the future. Let us not despair. Let us realize that as we struggle for justice and freedom, we have cosmic companionship. This is the long faith of the Hebraic-Christian tradition: that God is not some Aristotelian ‘unmoved mover’ who merely contemplates upon Himself. He is not merely a self-knowing God, but an other-loving God forever working through history for the establishment of His kingdom.”

On this day, there will be many people remembering Dr. King, honoring his accomplishments, and calling for a renewed commitment to social justice and non-violent resistance. Some will be eager to point out his shortcomings, and some will want to ignore the source of his courage and reduce him to a social activist or a community organizer.

I often wonder what Dr. King would have made of all this attention. I often wonder how he would have wanted to be remembered. He may have given us a hint. He was extremely reluctant to talk about his life of faith, the ebb and flow of his relationship to God. Yet he chose to tell us about the kitchen table epiphany and how he overcame compassion fatigue. He could not have done anything without God’s companionship, and he wanted us to know this and give God, as we sometimes say, the glory.

I am sure that Dr. King would never have claimed this about himself, but God was breaking into history through him and “bending its arc toward justice.” In telling us about his epiphany, Dr. King was offering hope for those of us who struggle for justice, peace, the integrity of creation and who are fatigued. God is an insomniac. God cannot rest until all the children of God are safe in the fold. We are not alone. We have a companion.

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Thank you, Tom, for your blog. MLK Jr was a remarkable human being, a courageous Christian, a great American, an exceptional leader, and deeply flawed like the rest of us. Having done a lot of reading by and about him, I highly recommend The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr, edited by Clayborne Carson.

Your blog is much appreciated, Tom. For all of his virtues and achievements, Martin Luther King Jr. suffered from the same flaws as the rest of us: He was a good guy who happened to be a great American and an amazing leader. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., compiled by Clayborne Carson, is a must-read for everyone interested in the civil rights leader and his legacy.