There are many reasons to love Dr. King’s message. Freedom, hope, equality, and love are invaluable goals and lessons, but the greatest of these is love.
In a political realm fraught with derision and vitriol, what better reminder than the transformative power of love?
Loving those who love you back is no chore, but loving those who hate and scorn you is another matter entirely.
At the launch of the Montgomery bus boycott, King said:
“Let us fight passionately and unrelentingly to the goals of justice. Let’s be sure that our hands are clean Let us never fight with falsehood and violence and hate and malice, but always fight with love so that when the day comes and the walls of segregation are completely crumbled in Montgomery, we will be able to live with people as brothers.”
In 1957, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alamaba, King gave what is my absolute favorite speech of the last 100 years, “Loving Your Enemies.”
You can listen to the sermon here:
The entire sermon is well worth reading, digesting, and rereading, but I’ve included some of the most powerful bits beneath:
…There’s another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater…. 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…. 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.
…meet every situation of life with an abounding love. Never hate, because it ends up in tragic, neurotic responses…. Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life. So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.…Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that 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 at 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. Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but 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 is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.
…So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.
May we find inspiration and hope in the legacy left to us by Dr. King and in every way, may we find the grace to fight with love.