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MLK: Love Your Enemies (Now more than Ever)

Today, January 17th is Martin Luther King, Jr Day in the United States. Three years ago I posted the item below. Although the link to the sermon below has changed to http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/kingpapers/article/loving_your_enemies/, the words seem even more relevant today in light of the tragic events in Tuscon than they did in 2008.

I can’t think a better way to commemorate MLK’s day this year or to point the way to a better political discourse than to share the wise words (his, not mine) below.

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Today, January 21st, is Martin Luther King, Jr. day in the United States.

Just over a half century ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a sermon on Loving Your Enemies at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on November 17, 1957.

I just discovered this sermon a few days ago, but I think it is the best preaching on the subject that I’ve found. I also think his words ring truer today than ever, both on the personal and political levels. The sermon is seven pages long, but I wanted to share a few quotes.

First I want to share MLK’s thoughts on the conception that I’ve heard that Jesus’ command to love your enemies isn’t intended for the “real world.”:

So I want to turn your attention to this subject: “Loving Your Enemies.” It’s so basic to me because it is a part of my basic philosophical and theological orientation—the whole idea of love, the whole philosophy of love. In the fifth chapter of the gospel as recorded by Saint Matthew, we read these very arresting words flowing from the lips of our Lord and Master: “Ye have heard that it has been said, ‘Thou shall love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.’ But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.”

Certainly these are great words, words lifted to cosmic proportions. And over the centuries, many persons have argued that this is an extremely difficult command. Many would go so far as to say that it just isn’t possible to move out into the actual practice of this glorious command. They would go on to say that this is just additional proof that Jesus was an impractical idealist who never quite came down to earth. So the arguments abound. But far from being an impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist. The words of this text glitter in our eyes with a new urgency. Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.

Now let me hasten to say that Jesus was very serious when he gave this command; he wasn’t playing. He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies. He realized that it’s difficult to love those persons who seek to defeat you, those persons who say evil things about you. He realized that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard. But he wasn’t playing. And we cannot dismiss this passage as just another example of Oriental hyperbole, just a sort of exaggeration to get over the point. This is a basic philosophy of all that we hear coming from the lips of our Master. Because Jesus wasn’t playing; because he was serious. We have the Christian and moral responsibility to seek to discover the meaning of these words, and to discover how we can live out this command, and why we should live by this command.

After offering some tips on HOW to love your enemies, which is a topic I almost never see covered in books or sermons, Dr. King suggests a number of reasons why it is only practical to love our enemies. The reason below is one I see in too many public figures, regardless of party:

There’s another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. We usually think of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates. You just begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things. You can’t see straight when you hate. You can’t walk straight when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your vision is distorted. 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.

Towards the end of the sermon, Dr. King ties in the theme of loving your enemies to dealing with oppression. And in doing so, I think he makes a good contrast between nonviolence and submission:

History unfortunately leaves some people oppressed and some people oppressors. And there are three ways that individuals who are oppressed can deal with their oppression. One of them is to rise up against their oppressors with physical violence and corroding hatred. But oh this isn’t the way. For the danger and the weakness of this method is its futility. Violence creates many more social problems than it solves. And I’ve said, in so many instances, that as the Negro, in particular, and colored peoples all over the world struggle for freedom, if they succumb to the temptation of using violence in their struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. Violence isn’t the way.

Another way is to acquiesce and to give in, to resign yourself to the oppression. Some people do that. They discover the difficulties of the wilderness moving into the promised land, and they would rather go back to the despots of Egypt because it’s difficult to get in the promised land. And so they resign themselves to the fate of oppression; they somehow acquiesce to this thing. But that too isn’t the way because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.

But there is another way. And that is to organize mass non-violent resistance based on the principle of love. It seems to me that this is the only way as our eyes look to the future. As we look out across the years and across the generations, let us develop and move right here. We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better. Love is the only way. Jesus discovered that.

Not only did Jesus discover it, even great military leaders discover that. One day as Napoleon came toward the end of his career and looked back across the years—the great Napoleon that at a very early age had all but conquered the world. He was not stopped until he became, till he moved out to the battle of Leipzig and then to Waterloo. But that same Napoleon one day stood back and looked across the years, and said: “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have built great empires. But upon what did they depend? They depended upon force. But long ago Jesus started an empire that depended on love, and even to this day millions will die for him.”

I hope I’ve given you enough highlights that you will go and read the full sermon. Then that you will share the sermon or at least this blog post with your friends. Or maybe with your favorite Presidential candidate. This is the sort of discourse we could use from the schoolhouse to the White House.

Too often we are told that loving your enemies is naive, unrealistic and unsuited to life here. But Jesus first spoke these words under a murderous and extorting Roman occupation. He well knew what real enemies were like. Dr. King endorsed Jesus’ command in a time of brutal racial discrimination. Dr. King knew about lynchings, he knew about the segregated restrooms and crumbling schools forced on his people by legal force. He wasn’t coddled growing up and yet he could endorse the words of his Master to love his enemies. Isn’t this something we should consider doing in our far more comfortable lives?

Thanks to the Stanford MLK Papers Project and the King family for making this sermon transcript available.

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One Response

  1. Thanks for posting this. I enjoyed reading it, and while do so found my mind wandering to various folks in my life, various issues in their lives, various issues in my own. It speaks to so many life issues, grand and intimate, social and personal. I’ll definitely be sharing this with friends.

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