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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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For Bristol Palin: You Can Defend AND Be Civil

I’ve been half following the Facebook fight between Bristol & Willow Palin and detractors of the show Sarah Palin’s Alaska. I wasn’t planning to write about it until I saw Bristol’s apology today:

Reacting to negative comments about your family is nothing to apologize for. I think that perhaps Bristol has confused civility with being a human carpet. This just isn’t true. One can engage in the act of defending one’s family in a way that you NEVER have to apologize for.

I’ll use the remark that got Bristol and Willow started. According to media reports, the offending remark was:

Tre:  “Sarah Palin’s Alaska is failing so hard right now.”

Instead of what was actually posted, let’s picture what could have been done instead:

Tre:  “Sarah Palin’s Alaska is failing so hard right now.”

Bristol: “What makes you say that?”

Tre: “The whole thing. It’s lame.”

Bristol: “What’s lame about Denali National Park?”

Tre: “Your mom. Her screechy voice is very lame-0.”

Bristol: “I’m really lucky to have such a supportive mom who involves me in her life. Our family is out in the country a lot and I enjoy the time we have together. And the millions of people tuning in to the show tonight don’t have a problem with her voice.”

Tre: “Then there’s yer Dad. I don’t buy him as the big sportsman. He’s a poser.”

Bristol:  “My dad brings home caribou every year. I learned fishing from him in Bristol Bay and he competes in the Iron Dog every year. How many 1000 mile plus races have you been in lately?”

Tre gets bored and goes away.*

In this scenario, Bristol reacted to a number of negative comments about her family. Was there anything to apologize for here? Not for our simulated Bristol. She turned every insult into an opportunity to say positive things about the show and her family. If anyone owes an apology in our simulated dialog, it would be the simulated Tre, who continues to insult another merely for being positive about their family.

So Bristol, the moral of the exercise: defense plus civility means not having to say you’re sorry. Please try to remember that the next time you feel that you or your family is being slighted.

*Sure, my dialog is stilted. That’s why I’m writing nonfiction for National Novel Writing Month.

My Request for an Apology from Mr. Gibbs

The story about how the White House Press Secretary suggested that the President’s critics on the left yearn for the dismantling of the Pentagon and should be drug tested rankles me because it’s not in keeping with the civility that marked the 2008 Obama campaign or his first year in office.

So a few days ago, I used the White House contact form at http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact to write the President the following message:

Dear Mr. President,

I am writing to ask you to instruct Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to apologize for his recent remarks saying that people who question your accomplishments should be drug tested.

Mr. Gibbs has apparently refused to retract his remarks, according to a Dayton Daily News article on August 13, 2010 available at http://www.daytondailynews.com/opinion/columnists/dana-milbank-professional-left-still-waiting-for-a-white-house-apology-859952.html.

One of the negative features of the past Administration was its branding of its opponents as unAmerican. You have put an end to that practice and I am grateful for that. But branding Administration opponents as drug users isn’t a whole lot better in terms of civility.

I say this as someone who believes that the core criticism by Mr Gibbs is reasonable. Your administration isn’t being given credit for real accomplishments and it’s fair to point that out.

It’s also fair that critics of the Administration have valid points too. It is not to wish the dismantling of the Pentagon to express dismay at the fact that Gitmo is still open for business and that you intend to reserve the right to hold some people indefinitely without charge. We can argue over whether that is appropriate. But your representatives shouldn’t suggest that such critics are closet drug users.

I’m not calling for Mr. Gibbs’ firing. I’m not threatening to stay home in November. I just want you to encourage Mr. Gibbs to live up to your example of civility.

Respectfully,
Daniel Cornwall

If you’re concerned about Mr. Gibbs’ lapse of civility towards opponents, I encourage you to contact the White House as well.

Based on writing to Presidents of both parties off and on since the 1970s, I’m not expecting a meaningful response. But I think it is important that those of us who do care about civility make our voices heard.

Softer Side of Michael Reagan

Housekeeping note: I am back on the grid. I’m writing this entry from my new laptop in the Burbank airport waiting to go home to Alaska.

My limited experience of presidential son and conservative talk show host Michael Reagan has been of a mocking and name calling man in the mold of Rush Limbaugh and others across the political spectrum more interested in heat than light.

But thanks to my brother, I got to experience a different, compassionate side of Michael Reagan. My brother and his finance’ took me to a fundraiser for the My Stuff Bags Foundation last Friday. The foundation packs care packages for children rescued from abusive parents and other terribly difficult situations. The idea is to give these kids a sense of dignity by giving them something they can carry with them wherever they go. Getting a bag also is a concrete way of showing that some people do care about them. I think this work is worthy and I funded a bag. I hope you will consider doing so too.

Michael Reagan is the honorary national spokesman for this group and he spoke eloquently at the fundraiser. He really seemed to believe in the work and was very encouraging. Even in this non-partisan setting, he couldn’t resist getting in at least one dig at the President. At the end of his talk about My Stuff Bags, he stated that people fretting about Obama’s indecision could relax — after much deliberation, the President signed orders for 40,000 troops — and they were headed to Fox. I’m not a Republican, but I laughed at it’s cleverness. Still seemed out-of-place for an event dedicated to abused children. But I appreciate Mr. Reagan’s commitment to helping children in need.

I bring up this story because it highlights a point I try to make here periodically — Never write off your political opponents. You never know if there is at least one issue that you might be able to work hand in hand on. Try. If they won’t play along (health care comes to mind), feel free to move on without them. But gauge their interest first. You might get a pleasant surprise.

Obama Nobel Good, DNC Bad

Like many Americans and others around the world, I was stunned and puzzled by the news that President Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I am sympathetic to those who say that this award was given to someone without a concrete record of achievement in the field of peace. Indeed, President Obama placed himself in this group in his statement on receiving the prize:

I am both surprised and deeply humbled by the decision of the Nobel Committee.  Let me be clear:  I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.

To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who’ve been honored by this prize — men and women who’ve inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.

Some, including Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria, have suggested that this Nobel was awarded because people around the world are grateful that the American government is turning back towards engaging the world instead of assuming it alone has the power to remake the world in its own image.  This theory sounds plausible to me. As such I am proud that the United States has received this vote of confidence. I think it is appropriate to celebrate the President’s award as an endorsement of America.

Not everyone agrees with that point of view and there’s nothing morally wrong with not rejoicing over this award. Neither does criticism of the President’s award amount to collaborating with our enemies.

That’s why I’m extremely disappointed with the Democratic National Committee for equating skepticism over the award with support for terrorists in a statement made on Friday:

“The Republican Party has thrown in its lot with the terrorists — the Taliban and Hamas this morning — in criticizing the President for receiving the Nobel Peace prize,”

One of the reasons that I’ve been consistently voting for Democrats on the national level is because the Bush Administration and Republican’s constant drumbeat of  “Real Americans support the President, Critics are with [terrorists/Saddam/Castro/etc]” sickened me.  Equating dissent with love of America’s enemies wasn’t appropriate then and it’s not appropriate now. Thankfully, as far as I know, no one in the Obama administration has taken this line and I encourage them not to. And I encourage the DNC not to make fundraising calls to me until they apologize for their remarks.

Civility doesn’t ignore lies

In a recent Facebook posting, former governor Sarah Palin accuses President Obama of having abandoned his commitment to civility:

In his speech the President directly responded to concerns I’ve raised about unelected bureaucrats being given power to make decisions affecting life or death health care matters. He called these concerns “bogus,” “irresponsible,” and “a lie” — so much for civility. After all the name-calling, though, what he did not do is respond to the arguments we’ve made, arguments even some of his own supporters have agreed have merit.

Here is the portion of the President’s address to Congress on September 9th that she appears to be referring to:

“Some of people’s concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost.  The best example is the claim made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but by prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens.  Now, such a charge would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical and irresponsible.  It is a lie, plain and simple. “

I believe that Governor Palin has the same false idea about civility that I’ve seen from people from across the political spectrum. That civil people never bring up uncomfortable issues or challenge the factual claims of others.

What civility is about is making sure that when you’re discussing issues that you stick to facts and behaviors and that you avoid demonizing your opponent.

In the case of the President’s remarks above, he is describing behaviors –“spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost” and facts — There are no panels established in HR 3200 to kill off senior citizens.

It might help you understand the difference between what is civil and what is not if I rewrote the President’s paragraph in a non-civil way:

“Some of people’s concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by greedy and evil people who could care less about the poor and vulnerable.  Whackjobs like Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin are saying that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens.  If we listen to such evil and greedy people whose only concern is for their corporate masters, then America will get what it deserves.”

See the difference? One way attacks false claims and the other way attacks people’s character.

Being civil isn’t a contract to avoid calling people out when they make false claims. But it is a promise to focus on the lies/misinterpretations and not attack the intrinsic character of the person.

Please Read Ephesians 4 Before Attending Townhall

Many people in the anti-health care reform movement are regular churchgoers that talk about the need to follow the Bible and have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. As one Christian to others, this post is for them.

I support the right of people who oppose the President’s/Congress’ plan for health insurance reform and encourage you to attend town hall meetings in your district. You have a right to be heard. You do not have a right to use the disruptive tactics suggested by Robert McGuffie. And I think the Bible supports me on this.

I’m thinking particularly of Ephesians 4:30-32:

And do not grieve the holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption. All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. (And) be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.

I fail to see how the following tactics suggested by Mr. MacGuffie fit into Ephesians 4:

  • Watch for an opp011unity to yell out and challenge the Rep’s statements early. If he blames Bush for something or offers other excuses — call him on it, yell back and have someone else tallow-up with a shout-out.
  • If the Rep tries a particularly odious diversion,  someone from the
    group should yell out to answer the question.
  • Screaming before questions are taken.
  • Bringing signs that show personal hatred for individual politicians instead of rejection of harmful policies. Not specifically in the memo, but seen at town halls around the country.

Again, if you have concerns about the health plan before Congress, you do deserve to be heard. Write letters, go to town halls. Sign up to speak, ask your questions, make your comments and do followups. But do it in a spirit of love and charity as Christ who called you. Did Jesus interrupt the Pharisees while they were still speaking? Did he not let them have their say before responding? Why not go and do the same?