Only Love

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same?" (Matthew 5:43-47)
On this day, January 15, in 1929, Martin Luther King Jr was born in Atlanta. He went to Atlanta’s Morehouse College, and got a BA at age 19. Then: Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he got a Divinity degree at age 22. Then directly to Boston University for doctoral studies.

In 1954, he was called to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The next year, 1955, he finished his PhD, and began organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which brought him to national prominence. He was just 26.

Martin Luther King’s book, “Strength to Love,” came out in 1963. It’s a collection of 17 of his sermons on a wide range of topics, including love, nonviolence, racism, and social justice. The book is widely considered one of King's most important works and continues to be read and studied today for its powerful message of hope and change.

Chapter 5 is a sermon called, “Loving Your Enemies” – which was probably originally delivered in 1957. In that sermon, King takes as his text the passage from Matthew where Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” About half-way through that sermon comes the passage that has become one of the best-known King quotations. I will quote more than is usually quoted, to give you a little more context:
“Let us move now from the practical how to the theoretical why. Why should we love our enemies? The first reason is fairly obvious. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
Only love can drive out hate. Only love.

King goes on to speak of the damage that hating does to the one who hates. He says:
“Another reason we must love our enemies is that hate scars the soul and distorts the personality.”
It certainly harms the hated – and,
“is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity....Psychiatrists report that many of the strange things that happen in the subconscious, many of our inner conflicts, are rooted in hate. They say, ‘Love or perish.’ Modern psychology recognizes what Jesus taught centuries ago: hate divides the personality -- and love, in an amazing and inexorable way, unites it.”
King then adds:
“A third reason we should love our enemies is that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate. We get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.”
So far, what King has said seems anodyne. We have heard it many times. For most of us, grasping King’s point so far does not seem a difficult challenge.

We can’t be sure how challenging it was for Jesus’ audience when he said “love your enemies.” Jesus was definitely calling for a shift. He says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies.”
Jesus is referencing Hebrew Scripture with which his audience would have been familiar. The love your neighbor part is Leviticus 19:18 --
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This, however, does not apply to enemies, such as Ammonites and Moabites, about which Deuteronomy 23:6 says:
“You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.”
And, concerning one’s personal enemies, Psalm 41:10 beseeches,
“But you, O Lord, be gracious to me, and raise me up, that I may repay them.”
Other passages of Hebrew scripture point in a different direction. Leviticus 19 also says:
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the native-born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
So Jesus, within a tradition that sometimes seemed to endorse animosity, sought to overthrow those parts of his tradition, which he could do by drawing on other parts of the tradition.

In a context where his people were terribly oppressed by Romans, Jesus told his people to love their enemies. Love the Romans. That is the tradition King draws on when he urges loving even the white racists. Now it gets a bit more challenging.

King cites the example of Abraham Lincoln, who appointed some of even his bitterest critics and enemies to his cabinet. King then says:
“It was this same attitude that made it possible for Lincoln to speak a kind word about the South during the Civil War when feeling was most bitter. Asked by a shocked bystander how he could do this, Lincoln said, ‘Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?’ This is the power of redemptive love.”
For King, what it comes down to most fundamentally is:
“We are called to this difficult task in order to realize a unique relationship with God....We must love our enemies, because only by loving them can we know God and experience the beauty of his holiness.”
We might prefer to say that only by loving them can we be whole.

Anytime you hate, any time you reject, any time you simply cannot accept another person, that person represents a part of you that you are seeking to excise. Our own wholeness requires that we accept all parts of our ourselves, accept all of who we are.

Nowadays we don’t like to use the word “enemies.” I don’t know if I’ve ever in my life identified someone as an enemy, except maybe in a facetious reference to my opponent in some game we were playing. Even our military now prefers to say, “hostiles.” And, yeah, maybe you can’t, or wouldn’t, identify anyone as an enemy, but you can think of times when someone was hostile toward you. You may have felt some hostility back.

There are people who you find difficult. And I’m suggesting to you that what you don’t like about them is a reflection of a part of yourself that you don’t like. Accept them, welcome them, love them. For only then can you accept, welcome, and love all of who you are. Even a certain former president is manifesting parts that are in all of us, and any part of ourselves that we try to excise and exile simply goes subterranean and becomes more powerful. But what we accept, welcome, and love can play its useful role and stay in its place. Only when an inner voice is heard and respectfully acknowledged will it, in turn, acknowledge and be willing to bow to your other and countervailing voices. Only love -- inward and outward not distinguished -- brings us into our wholeness.

Accepting, welcoming, and loving does not mean complacency or quiescence in the face of harm. It does not mean complicity with injustice. Dr. King’s “Loving Your Enemies” sermon made this point -- a point he reiterated many times in his career. He said:
“This does not mean that we abandon our righteous efforts. With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community. 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. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you....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.'"
The victory to which King refers is not a once-and-done conquest, but an unfolding victory the earning of which is never completed. Under his leadership, the victory unfolded some. Yet “Chains still there are to break; their days are not finished. Metal or subtle-made they’re still not diminished” (Belletini, Hymn #220)

May we, with our lives, unfold further the double victory. Only love can do that.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your continued focus on finding a together path. —Wade Benson.