Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).
On the day after my birth in 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a Christmas sermon, “Loving Your Enemies,”
at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Of course, I never heard it. I only read the text decades later. But even before I read it, no sermon since the Sermon on the Mount shaped me more because of the alternative ethos of love and justice that emerged from it. As a white, southern male, no sermon more powerfully, if ironically, declared the love of God and of the preacher himself for me.
King wrote it in jail, serving time for his part in the Montgomery bus boycott. What a perfect exercise in meekness for the black church to resist the indignity of being forced to the back of the bus: With no flying fists, no slashing tires, and no cutting words, they simply assumed a posture of dignity in the face of evil. African-American people who worked on their feet all day walked to their jobs or gave each other rides.
What a perfect portrait of meekness was their rising leader: The scholarly and visionary pastor behind bars, putting his body on the line even as he scratched divinely inspired words on paper.
The sermon declared the single motive driving every march, sit-in, and boycott: Love. Not shame, manipulation, provocation, or revenge, but love. By his charisma and courage, King moved the people of his race to love themselves enough to risk life and limb for what mattered most to them. Moreover, by his commitment to nonviolence grounded in the prophets, Jesus Christ, and Gandhi, King exhorted the same people to do it for love not only of themselves, but of the white oppressor.
Love was not only the motive but Dr. King’s medicine for the sickness of the system and of the souls who perpetuated it. Dr. King diagnosed the disease eating the white neighbor: “Hate is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.”
Dr. King’s medicine included caution against malpractice:
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”
Good treatment required attention first to the soundness of the physician:
“We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity.”
“Getting rid of the enemy” does not mean elimination but transformation:
“By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.”
The best physicians seek the health in the patient and leverage it to overcome illness:
There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. When we look beneath the surface, beneath the impulsive evil deed, we see within our enemy-neighbor a measure of goodness and know the viciousness and evilness of his acts are not quite representative of all that he is. We see him in a new light. We recognize that his hate grows out of fear, pride, ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding, but in spite of this, we know God’s image is ineffably etched in his being. Then we love our enemies by realizing that they are not totally bad and that they are not beyond the reach of God’s redemptive love.”
I was a day old. Yet, that sermon, that movement, that power of the Holy Spirit sweeping through the South changed my life, recreated the world, and still challenges me to repent of the racism that clanks around in my head from time to time and to stand in solidarity with the meek, perchance to become meek myself. Please read – and as you do so, you may well hear – Dr. King’s most stirring and healing words from that sermon:
To our most bitter opponents we say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you
in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” in Strength to Love
. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1963)
. Quotations in this post come from the chapter based on the sermon with King’s revisions. For the text of the original sermon, visit http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/loving-your-enemies-0.