Martin Luther King, Jr. and Loving Our Enemies

Today, the United States celebrates Martin Luther King Day, one of the very few U.S. holidays commemorating an individual person. We celebrate King for his commitment to nonviolence in his protest of racial discrimination, a commitment that was rooted in his Christian faith.

King preached magnificently on many topics, including Jesus’ command that we love our enemy. In a sermon he gave in 1957, he rejected out of hand the suggestion that the Jesus didn’t really mean that we should love our enemy or that it represented a utopian dream. Instead, he called love of enemy “an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization” and claimed that in giving that command “Jesus wasn’t playing,” but was quite serious.

For King, a key to our ability to love our enemies is to discover the element of good in them, the starting point for which is recognizing that none of us is either all good or all bad. He said:

I’ve said to you on many occasions that each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality. We’re split up and divided against ourselves. And there is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives. There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul. And there is this continual struggle within the very structure of every individual life. There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with Ovid, the Latin poet, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.” There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with Plato that the human personality is like a charioteer with two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in different directions. There is something within each of us that causes us to cry out with Goethe, “There is enough stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rogue.” There is something within each of us that causes us to cry out with Apostle Paul, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.”

So somehow the “isness” of our present nature is out of harmony with the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts us. And this simply means this: That within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls “the image of God,” you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never sluff off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.

Neither the command to love our neighbor nor King’s call for us to find the good in all people is always easy. But we see from the state of the world in which we live the consequences of our failure to do so. King may not be guilty of hyperbole when he said that if we are to survive we must learn to do this.

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