I’ve started reading MLK’s sermons again this week with his day of recognition taking place on Monday here in these United States. It’s been a while since I was last with King. Last summer, when I was working the overnight shifts at the shelter I would spend my breaks at Ihop with the good reverend. Two things stand out from my memory of those times: (1) how rejuvenating the coffee–superabundantly loaded with sugar–was for me and (2) how moving, emotive, and upbuilding King’s sermons were. There were times when I wanted in univocity with the congregation to agree in a resounding amen and amen, and there were times when I could not but be stirred by his homiletic eloquence to read his sermons aloud. There’s no doubt that I would have heeded an altar call had my soul been so gracefully admonished in the presence of his gospel proclamation.
As King’s national holiday approaches with all its hagiographic accompaniment it is important to remember, especially given the construction and unveiling of his national relic in DC, that, contrary to the popular cultural memory of King, his legacy is one far more complex than what the coming days will narrate. King’s jeremiads animadverted not only the “race problem” but also and increasingly towards the end of his life capitalism and war.
Expect, predictably, the redacted King of civil religion to make no qualms with the contemporary state of things and to be instrumentalized in post-racial narratives. His remembered message will be edgeless and blunt, as lip service will be paid by political leaders from every corner, from President Obama to the conservative primary runners. The duplicitousness and untruth will be exceptionally uninteresting from the conservative candidates in light of the racial-essentializing comments and sentiments from seemingly every candidate.
This is, of course, not to expect President Obama to correct such a myopic vision, or better, to offer a revisionist historical remembrance that embraces a King who is unsettling to those in power that neglect the powerless and confrontational to those that render invisible the disinherited. The irony of all this is the extant conditions and prevalence of poverty, economic injustice, racism, and imperialism; further, that there maintains a moral deficiency of an imaginative alternative to war and “American interests” as the sole justifying criteria (even Ron Paul’s isolationism is directed by an exceedingly conventional appeal to the interests of America). All these things are absent current political nomenclature but were never more than an earshot from the euphonics mused by King.
Yesterday, I re-read a sermon King gave at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery in 1957. The sermon is on Jesus’ command to love your enemies. The first half of the sermon considers the practical how of Jesus antithesis. He covers much ground in this part; first (and against Niebuhrian realism) he declares that
“Jesus was serious when he gave this command; he wasn’t playing. He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies. He realized that its difficult to love those persons who seek to defeat you, those persons who say evil things about you. He realized 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 to 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.”
After clearing the ground from any realist objections he discusses two steps a person should take in loving their enemies: first, look at yourself and the splinter in your own eye (he cites the international struggle between communism and democracy. While democracy is hailed as the greatest government ever conceived, the reality is that it has never been touched in the United States. King points out that one can see this by facing “the rhythmic beat of the deep rumblings of discontent from Asia and Africa” that unmask the failings of democracy in western civilization.) and second, discover the good in your enemy. For King, every human being is at different times good and evil (“there is the recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul”) but nevertheless bears the image of God. The task is to learn to recognize this image.
King puts the task of loving your enemy pointedly when he says, “Another way of loving 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.” I think that is sweet.
After discussing different forms of love derived from the Greek language King moves into the second half of the sermon which considers the metaphysical why behind the practical how. For King, violence can only lead to more violence. The chain of evil present in the universe cannot be broken through more acts of violence even by a force that appears justified. True strength, King says, comes when one has the power to cut off this chain and “inject” into the very fabric of the cosmos the element of love.
Hate destroys both the object of its scorn and the person who carries it, while love is the creative response to life that brings with it more life. What is more, love is not only creative but it is redemptive. It bears with it the power of redeeming the object of its attention, the power of transforming enemies. Love, as King describes it in this sermon, is the force that Jesus proclaimed that has the power to save the universe from hate and destruction and bring to it creation and redemption. In sum and to borrow from Yoder’s fitting phrase, to love your enemy is to move “with the grain of the universe.”