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An excerpt from “Loving Your Enemies” 1
If we are not careful, if we are not intentional, if we are not prayerfully examining our hearts and lovingly attending to the world around us, there can be a certain Groundhog Day quality to our annual celebrations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and our observances of the national holiday marking his birth.
Without much effort, every year we can pull out the old speeches and maybe watch some old newsreels. Without thinking very hard at all, we can make long lists of the ways that still, after all these years, our nation falls short of fulfilling Dr. King’s dream. Without irony, we can sing the old songs of the Civil Rights Movement and, again, bemoan all the evils and injustices we have not yet overcome.
And then, if we are not mindful, nothing significant will have changed. If we are more concerned about being progressive in our politics than faithful to the call of Jesus, we might pat ourselves on the back for having dedicated another worship service to the memory of a black man who spoke often of the racial sins committed by well-meaning Christian white folks. If we like both our religion and our politics to be respectable, we might forget that both Jesus and Dr. King were killed for directly challenging the unjust status quo and the political and religious authorities who supported it. If we are more concerned about who wins elections than taking personal responsibility for addressing the racism deeply embedded in our institutions, our laws, our churches, and our hearts, we will leave Dr. King, and perhaps Jesus, too, at the church door.
I don’t know about you, but that’s not the kind of Martin Luther King Jr. service I want. That’s not the kind of Jesus I want. It’s not the kind of faith I want.
Both Jesus and Dr. King were nothing if not relevant to the needs and the challenges of their times, more specifically to the poor and oppressed peoples of their times. So, as I began thinking about our service today, as I began reflecting on what about Dr. King’s life and work—his prophetic ministry—would speak most directly to our current situation as progressive, mostly white Christians in a deeply divided nation and a dangerous world, I was reminded of his work for peace through nonviolence. As you may recall, in the last year of his life, he became an outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam, and he was highly criticized for it. Some said his antiwar work discounted the ongoing racial injustices in our nation; others said his polarizing views on Vietnam threatened to undercut all the progress he had achieved on civil rights.
But Dr. King was a prophet. Dr. King was a visionary. And Dr. King, like Jesus, saw clearly the ways in which all things were connected. Dr. King could not work for justice for some and not for all. He could not seek empowerment and equality for black Americans while ignoring how many black American men were being conscripted to wage war against poor people half a world away. Dr. King, like Jesus, wanted nothing less than justice and peace, equality and full personhood—which is to say, the kingdom of heaven—for all.
Especially in what turned out to be the last year of his life, Dr. King was working for nothing less than a “true revolution of values,” and he called on the United States to lead the way. This revolution of values would confront injustice everywhere, and it would be fueled by nothing less than “an all-embracing and unconditional love for all” humanity. 2
The more I read what Dr. King had to say about peace and nonviolence, the more I encountered him talking about love. Love not as a feeling, but a choice. Love not as a something weak, but a strong and courageous action. Love not only for our partners and families and friends, but also and especially for our enemies.
The excerpt Toby read earlier was from a sermon called “Loving Your Enemies,” preached by Dr. King in November 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. It was not the first time Dr. King had preached on Jesus’ admonition in the Sermon on the Mount, and it would not be his last. As Dr. King understood it, making the decision to love our enemies for Christ’s sake, and figuring out how to love our enemies, was the fundamental call and essential hope of Christian and human life.
Changing unjust laws, systems, and institutions was the goal of his movements for civil rights, economic justice, and peace. But true and lasting peace, real justice, and economic equality would require transformative changes in the human heart, namely the willingness to love our enemies. He preached it again and again; he talked about it all the time.
Love for one another, including our enemies, is central to the gospel of Jesus. Loving our enemies was central to the work of Dr. King. And in our time—only two weeks’ out from what seemed like certain war with Iran, in at least the fourth year of our nation’s deepening and increasingly bitter political and cultural divide, and with impeachment ratcheting up the stakes—love for our enemies may be more important than ever.
Dr. King was a brilliant prophet, and part of that brilliance was his ability to take a challenging concept, break it down into something common and concrete everyone could relate to, and then raise it to the level of poetry and song. And so it was that in the same sermon where he spoke of the transformative power of love and the persistence of loving actions toward our enemies, he spoke of the absolute necessity of love for the saving of the world.
“The strong person, he said, “is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. And that is the tragedy of hate,” he added, “that it doesn’t cut off. It only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it out, and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.”
Just in case that wasn’t clear, Dr. King related a conversation he had had with his brother as they were driving one night. Driver after driver approaching them failed to dim their headlights, and it was making Dr. King’s brother angry. “ ‘I know what I’m going to do,’ his brother said. “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 their power.’ And [Dr. King] looked at him right quick and said, ‘Oh no, don’t do that. … Somebody got to have some sense on this highway.’ ”
“Somebody,” Dr. King said as he continued his sermon, “somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights, and that is the trouble, isn’t it? And 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, they decided to refuse to dim theirs. . . . And if somebody doesn’t have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful 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. [We] 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.”
This, beloveds, is the good news of Jesus Christ: that we are beloved of God and that, by the transforming power of that love, we can cut the chain of hate and evil and save this precious world that God so loves.
Now our president has said that his favorite Bible passage is “an eye for an eye,” and, unfortunately, he seems to live and govern by that principle. But we know what that will get us: a whole world gone blind. As it is, we live in a world seemingly gone mad with lies and disinformation, hate and dehumanization. And we only add to the crazy when we respond in kind—on Facebook or Twitter, in conversation, and in our thoughts and our hearts.
If we truly want to make peace, we have to stop hating others, we have to stop treating anyone as if they are somehow different or less than we are. If we want peace, we have to stop “othering” people, including those whose votes imperil everything and everyone we care about. If we want true peace, we must have sense enough to love our enemies. “There is a power in love than our world has not discovered yet.”
When I wonder how Jesus would have us live in these times, the answer seems clear. When I wonder what word Dr. King would have for us in these times, the answer is no different: “Love your enemies, and just keep loving them.”
It is a tall order and a holy calling—and it is the only way through and out of this unholy mess we are in. Our brother Jesus was called to be a light to the nations. Our brother Martin was called to be a light to the nations. And, we too, are called by God to be a light to the nations, so that God’s extravagant love, amazing grace, and merciful deliverance may reach to the ends of the earth.
So on this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and every day, may we be transformed by the power of God’s love, may we recommit ourselves to the way of love for all, and and may our love-lights shine for all the world to see.
1 In this November 1957 sermon, Dr. King spoke of the importance of loving our enemies and what that meant. It was a theme he return to countless times over the next 10.5 years. Here’s the excerpt we heard in worship: “Love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you. . . . Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. . . . Just keep loving them. And by the power of your love, they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There’s something about hate that tears down and is destructive. ‘Love your enemies.’ . . . . That’s it. There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet.”
2 These quotes are from Dr. King’s April 4, 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” delivered at Riverside Church in New York City.