Monday, January 21, 2008

Dr. King on Loving Your Enemies

Every year when Martin Luther King, Jr., Day rolls around, I like to read one of Dr. King's speeches or sermons. And while it's always good to read the "I Have a Dream" speech, especially since the most famous line is often taken out of context and used as a weapon against affirmative action, I also like to read his other speeches. He was an amazing spiritual leader, and his words have not lost their relevance. The full texts of a few of his better-known speeches are available at numerous websites which can be found with a Google search or from the reference links at the bottom of the Wikipedia page. The one I chose for today was "Loving Your Enemies," which he delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama on November 17, 1957.

One thing to remember as you read these speeches is that they are transcripts of spoken events--which means that there are occasional verbal slips. There is no editor to polish the words after the fact. And remember with the "Loving Your Enemies" speech, Dr. King was quite ill that day. His doctor nearly forbade him from going to church. But he wanted so badly to deliver this message that he went to the pulpit anyway. And it is an amazing, powerful speech, through and through. I encourage you to read it in its entirety (or if you have a broadband connection, I bet you could find the audio recording; but for modem users like me, text must suffice). The following paragraph moved me to tears:

"Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That's the time you must do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It's not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system."

Allow me to lift out the core concept for emphasis: Love "is the refusal to defeat any individual." Elsewhere in the speech, he talks about how loving your enemy does not necessarily mean liking them. Love is a conscious, often difficult choice to do the right thing even to someone who has done the wrong thing. He also talks about how hate can be as destructive and corroding for the hater as the hated. You love your enemies not just for their benefit, but also for your own.

Love like that--true, Christ-like love--could transform the whole world. But if that's too big to think about, imagine how it could transform just one life. And the vision is still staggering.

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