“Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Several years ago one of my spiritual teachers, Jennifer Hadley, advised reading Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “Loving Your Enemies” as a regular practice. “Recite it. Aloud. As if it is your sermon. Made from the pulpit of your living room,” she recommended. “It will transform you.”
There is an electricity that runs through all of Dr. King’s sermons. Probably the best orator of the 20th century, his speeches perfectly touched the souls of those hearing them. He stirred millions of Americans to nonviolent action, encouraging them to stand up against racial injustice, against racial and economic inequality, and against war.
The electric energy of Dr. King has endured. “Perhaps reading these eloquent proclamations will show us the way into the new millennium, and help us to continue to live truths,” says Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and a colleague of Dr. King in A Call to Conscience—a collection of Dr. King’s landmark speeches.
The Power of Speech
I wasn’t familiar with this particular sermon. Indeed, “Loving Your Enemies” is not one of Dr. King’s landmark addresses. It doesn’t mark the call to action like the speech he gave in 1955 following the arrest of fellow Montgomery-resident Rosa Parks. The speech in which he describes justice as “love correcting that which revolts against love.”
Nor is it the most poetic—like the speech he gave after a nonviolent march from Selma, calling for the right of African Americans to vote, declaring: “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her throne? … Not long.”
The sermon does not make the lofty aim for a global revolution of values that “will lay hand on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’” As Dr. King did in his address on Vietnam in New York City.
“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.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Nor has it become a speech profoundly symbolic of the transformation of a nation from the mired history of slavery towards a hopeful era of civil rights and equality like Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
Rather, the “Loving Your Enemies” sermon given in 1957 was to a relatively small congregation at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama where Dr. King was a pastor.
But in reading it, “by putting ourselves in his shoes, we have an understanding of what it took personally for him to lead a nation in profound transformation. How he became one of the most inspiring people to have ever walked the Earth, and how we can follow in his footsteps,” says Jennifer.
By reading it, we are transformed ourselves.
The call to love that Dr. King lays out in “Loving Your Enemies” echoes through all of his speeches. Furthermore, it is the message upon which he built his life—that love is “creative,” and that only love is capable of transforming hate into love. Therefore, to change the world, love has to be extended to everyone—even to our enemies. The message mirrored Gandhi’s, who Dr. King looked to as inspiration in the nonviolent justice movement.
The sermon uses the story of Abraham Lincoln and Mr. Stanton as an example of love driving out hate. When Lincoln was running to be president, Stanton did his utmost to ridicule Lincoln. Yet, when Lincoln was elected—despite criticism from his cabinet—he appointed Stanton as Secretary of War. In doing so, Lincoln not only served his people by selecting the best person for the job, but he transformed the hatred Stanton held in his heart towards Lincoln—so much so that when Lincoln was assassinated, it was Stanton who gave one of the most touching speeches.
Love is a powerful tool, more powerful than hate, as Dr. King said in his speech:
If Abraham Lincoln had hated Stanton … Stanton would have gone to his grave hating Lincoln, and Lincoln would have gone to his grave hating Stanton. … Hate destroys the hater as well as the hated … Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. … And by the power of your love they will break down under the load.
Dr. King’s gift was not just his soul-stirring rhetoric, but also his ability to put forward practical solutions. Love is a practice he realized, and one that requires certain things, as he noted in his speech:
- Looking at oneself. “We must face the fact that an individual might dislike us because of something that we’ve done deep down in the past … That is why I say, begin with yourself.”
- Discerning between like and love. “Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. … [but] love is greater than like. Love is understanding.”
- Helping those we hate. “When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. … 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…”
- Seeing the good in all. “Within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. … 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.”
Radical Love for the Modern Day
It is only with this foundation that as a society we can continue to walk towards the equality that Dr. King talked about in his “I Have a Dream” speech, says Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis. She is a senior minister at Middle Collegiate Church in New York, and Executive Director of The Middle Project, an institute that prepares ethical leaders for a more just society. “It’s a radical love. It is not a love for wimps. It’s saying: ‘I’m going to love you, and engage with you whoever you are,'” she says. “That love drives the dream of a world where black lives matter and therefore all lives matter. Asian lives matter, Latino lives matter, Muslim lives matter, gay lives matter, poor lives matter, and old lives matter. It is a world in which we value the woman in a hijab, and the man in a kippa, and the atheist. Where we realize we are a human family and we cannot function without each other.”
“When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Her favorite speech is “I Have a Dream.”
“I feel its reverberations still as people stand up against racial inequality that continues to be a reality,” says Jacqui. “And I am hopeful. I see signs of people collaborating, of races and religions coming together for equality, for justice. It doesn’t take a million people, it takes just enough good loving people who say: ‘This will not happen on our watch.’ And who continue the nonviolent protests on the streets to insist that everyone is treated fairly.”
Of all of Dr. King’s speeches, “Loving Your Enemies” is the one closest to my heart. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s love spurred actions that transformed a nation and continues to do so today. Among the many things I am grateful to Dr. King for is this reminder that hatred does not serve the world—and that includes my own hatred. In that way I have transformed too. If we want to make a change, be it political, environmental, for social equality and justice, or simply in our own lives: “Love is the only way.”
What quotes or speeches of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspire you?
Helen Avery is a Section Editor at Wanderlust Media, working on the Vitality and Wisdom channels on Wanderlust.com. She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, multi-path minister-in-training, and full-time dog walker of Millie.