Martin Luther King — Loving Your Enemies — Transcript

Martin Luther King Jr. deli­ve­r­ed this ser­mon on November 17, 1957 at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. (PDF ver­si­on)

Background
A week pri­or to deli­vering this ser­mon at his church, King had given a simi­lar ver­si­on at Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel in Washington, D. C., at the con­clu­si­on of Howard University School of Religion’s Forty-first Annual Convocation. [1]

Using Matthew 5:43–45 as his text, King empha­si­zes that “hate for hate only inten­si­fies the exis­tence of hate and evil in the uni­ver­se.… The strong per­son is the per­son who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil.… and inject wit­hin the very struc­tu­re of the uni­ver­se that strong and power­ful ele­ment of love.” 

This is my tran­script from this audio record­ing of the sermon.



[I am for­ced to pre­ach under some­thing of a han­di­cap this morning. In fact, I had the doc­tor befo­re com­ing to church. And he said that it would be best for me to stay in the bed this morning. And I insis­ted that I would have to come to pre­ach. So he allo­wed me to come out with one sti­pu­la­ti­on, and that is that I would not come in the pul­pit until time to pre­ach, and that after, that I would immedia­te­ly go back home and get in the bed. So I’m going to try to fol­low his inst­ruc­tions from that point on.]

I want to use as a sub­ject from which to pre­ach this morning a very fami­li­ar sub­ject, and it is fami­li­ar to you becau­se I have preached from this sub­ject twice befo­re to my knowing in this pul­pit. I try to make it some­thing of a cus­tom or tra­di­ti­on to pre­ach from this pas­sa­ge of Scripture at least once a year, adding new insights that I deve­lop along the way, out of new expe­ri­en­ces as I give the­se messages. Although the con­tent is, the basic con­tent is the same, new insights and new expe­ri­en­ces natu­ral­ly make for new illustrations.

So I want to turn your atten­ti­on to this sub­ject: “Loving Your Enemies.” It’s so basic to me becau­se it is a part of my basic phi­lo­so­phi­cal and theo­lo­gi­cal ori­en­ta­ti­on: the who­le idea of love, the who­le phi­lo­so­phy of love. In the fifth chap­ter of the gos­pel as recor­ded by Saint Matthew, we read the­se very arres­ting words flowing from the lips of our Lord and Master: “Ye have heard that it has been said, ‘Thou shall love thy neigh­bor, and hate thi­ne enemy.’ But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that cur­se you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that des­pi­te­ful­ly use you; that ye may be the child­ren of your Father which is in hea­ven.” [2]

Certainly the­se are gre­at words, words lifted to cos­mic pro­por­ti­ons. And over the cen­tu­ries, many per­sons have argued that this is an extre­me­ly dif­fi­cult com­mand. Many would go so far as to say that it just isn’t pos­si­ble to move out into the actu­al prac­ti­ce of this glo­rious com­mand. They would go on to say that this is just addi­tio­nal pro­of that Jesus was an imp­rac­ti­cal idea­list who never qui­te came down to earth. So the argu­ments abound. But far from being an imp­rac­ti­cal idea­list, Jesus has beco­me the prac­ti­cal rea­list. The words of this text glit­ter in our eyes with a new urgen­cy. Far from being the pious injunc­tion of a uto­pian drea­mer, this com­mand is an abso­lu­te neces­si­ty for the sur­vi­val of our civi­liz­a­ti­on. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civi­liz­a­ti­on, love even for enemies.

Now let me has­ten to say that Jesus was very serious when he gave this com­mand; he wasn’t play­ing. He rea­li­zed that it’s hard to love your enemies. He rea­li­zed that it’s dif­fi­cult to love tho­se per­sons who seek to defeat you, tho­se per­sons who say evil things about you. He rea­li­zed that 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 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. We have the Christian and moral respon­si­bi­li­ty to seek to dis­co­ver the mea­ning of the­se words, and to dis­co­ver how we can live out this com­mand, and why we should live by this command.

Now first let us deal with this ques­ti­on, which is the prac­ti­cal ques­ti­on: How do you go about loving your enemies? I think the first thing is this: In order to love your enemies, you must begin by ana­ly­zing self. And I’m sure that seems stran­ge to you, that I start out tel­ling you this morning that you love your enemies by begin­ning with a look at self. It seems to me that that is the first and fore­mo­st way to come to an ade­qua­te dis­co­very to the how of this situa­ti­on. Now, I’m awa­re of the fact that some peop­le will not like you, not becau­se of some­thing you have done to them, but they just won’t like you. I’m qui­te awa­re of that. Some peop­le aren’t going to like the way you walk; some peop­le aren’t going to like the way you talk. Some peop­le aren’t going to like you becau­se you can do your job bet­ter than they can do theirs. Some peop­le aren’t going to like you becau­se other peop­le like you, and becau­se you’re popu­lar, and becau­se you’re well-lik­ed, they aren’t going to like you. Some peop­le aren’t going to like you becau­se your hair is a litt­le shor­ter than theirs or your hair is a litt­le lon­ger than theirs. Some peop­le aren’t going to like you becau­se your skin is a litt­le brigh­ter than theirs; and others aren’t going to like you becau­se your skin is a litt­le dar­ker than theirs. So that some peop­le aren’t going to like you. They’re going to dis­li­ke you, not becau­se of some­thing that you’ve done to them, but becau­se of various jea­l­ous reac­tions and other reac­tions that are so pre­va­lent in human nature.

But after loo­king at the­se things and admit­ting the­se things, we must face the fact that an indi­vi­du­al might dis­li­ke us becau­se of some­thing that we’ve done deep down in the past, some per­so­na­li­ty attri­bu­te that we pos­sess, some­thing that we’ve done deep down in the past and we’ve for­got­ten about it; but it was that some­thing that arou­sed the hate respon­se wit­hin the indi­vi­du­al. That is why I say, begin with yourself. There might be some­thing wit­hin you that arou­ses the tra­gic hate respon­se in the other individual.

This is true in our inter­na­tio­nal strugg­le. We look at the strugg­le, the ideo­lo­gi­cal strugg­le bet­ween com­mu­nism on the one hand and demo­cra­cy on the other, and we see the strugg­le bet­ween America and Russia. Now cer­tain­ly, we can never give our alle­gi­an­ce to the Russian way of life, to the com­mu­nistic way of life, becau­se com­mu­nism is based on an ethi­cal rela­ti­vism and a meta­phy­si­cal mate­ria­lism that no Christian can accept. When we look at the methods of com­mu­nism, a phi­lo­so­phy whe­re somehow the end jus­ti­fies the means, we can­not accept that becau­se we belie­ve as Christians that the end is pre-exis­tent in the means. But in spi­te of all of the weak­nes­ses and evils inherent in com­mu­nism, we must at the same time see the weak­nes­ses and evils wit­hin democracy.

Democracy is the grea­test form of government to my mind that man has ever con­cei­ved, but the weak­ness is that we have never touched it. Isn’t it true that we have often taken neces­si­ties from the mas­ses to give luxu­ries to the clas­ses? Isn’t it true that we have often in our demo­cra­cy trampled over indi­vi­du­als and races with the iron feet of opp­res­si­on? Isn’t it true that through our Western powers we have per­pe­tua­ted colo­nia­lism and impe­ria­lism? And all of the­se things must be taken under con­si­de­ra­ti­on as we look at Russia. We must face the fact that the rhyth­mic beat of the deep rumb­lings of dis­con­tent from Asia and Africa is at bot­tom a revolt against the impe­ria­lism and colo­nia­lism per­pe­tua­ted by Western civi­liz­a­ti­on all the­se many years. The suc­cess of com­mu­nism in the world today is due to the fail­u­re of demo­cra­cy to live up to the noble ide­als and princi­ples inherent in its system.

And this is what Jesus means when he said: “How is it that you can see the mote in your brother’s eye and not see the beam in your own eye?” Or to put it in Moffatt’s trans­la­ti­on: “How is it that you see the splin­ter in your brother’s eye and fail to see the plank in your own eye?” [3] And this is one of the tra­ge­dies of human natu­re. So we begin to love our enemies and love tho­se per­sons that hate us whe­ther in collec­ti­ve life or indi­vi­du­al life by loo­king at ourselves.

A second thing that an indi­vi­du­al must do in see­king to love his enemy is to dis­co­ver the ele­ment of good in his enemy, and every time you begin to hate that per­son and think of hating that per­son, rea­li­ze that the­re is some good the­re and look at tho­se good points which will over-balan­ce the bad points. 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.” [4] 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. [5] 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.” [6]

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 slough 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.

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.

The Greek lan­guage, as I’ve said so often befo­re, is very power­ful at this point. It comes to our aid beau­ti­ful­ly in giving us the real mea­ning and depth of the who­le phi­lo­so­phy of love. And I think it is qui­te apro­pos at this point, for you see the Greek lan­guage has three words for love, inte­res­tin­g­ly enough. It talks about love as eros. That’s one word for love. Eros is a sort of, aes­the­tic love. Plato talks about it a gre­at deal in his Dialogues, a sort of year­ning of the soul for the realm of the gods. And it’s come to us to be a sort of roman­tic love, though it’s a beau­ti­ful love. Everybody has expe­ri­en­ced eros in all of its beau­ty when you find some indi­vi­du­al that is attrac­ti­ve to you and that you pour out all of your like and your love on that indi­vi­du­al. That is eros, you see, and it’s a power­ful, beau­ti­ful love that is given to us through all of the beau­ty of lite­ra­tu­re; we read about it.

Then the Greek lan­guage talks about phi­lia, and that’s ano­t­her type of love that’s also beau­ti­ful. It is a sort of inti­ma­te affec­tion bet­ween per­so­nal friends. And this is the type of love that you have for tho­se per­sons that you’re friend­ly with, your inti­ma­te friends, or peop­le that you call on the tele­pho­ne and you go by to have din­ner with, and your room­ma­te in col­le­ge and that type of thing. It’s a sort of reci­pro­cal love. On this level, you like a per­son becau­se that per­son likes you. You love on this level, becau­se you are loved. You love on this level, becau­se there’s some­thing about the per­son you love that is like­ab­le to you. This too is a beau­ti­ful love. You can com­mu­ni­ca­te with a per­son; you have cer­tain things in com­mon; you like to do things tog­e­ther. This is philia.

The Greek lan­guage comes out with ano­t­her word for love. It is the word aga­pe, and aga­pe is more than eros. Agape is more than phi­lia. Agape is some­thing of the under­stan­ding, crea­ti­ve, redemp­ti­ve good­will for all men. It is a love that seeks not­hing in return. It is an over­flowing love; it’s what theo­lo­gi­ans would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not becau­se they are like­ab­le, but becau­se God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him becau­se you know God loves him. And he might be the worst per­son you’ve ever seen. [7]

And this is what Jesus means, I think, in this very pas­sa­ge when he says, “Love your enemy.” And it’s signi­fi­cant that he does not say, “Like your enemy.” Like is a sen­ti­men­tal some­thing, an affec­tio­n­a­te some­thing. There are a lot of peop­le that I find it dif­fi­cult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other peop­le. I don’t like their atti­tu­des. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is grea­ter than like. Love is under­stan­ding, redemp­ti­ve good­will for all men, so that you love ever­y­bo­dy, becau­se God loves them. You refu­se to do anything that will defeat an indi­vi­du­al, becau­se you have aga­pe in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the indi­vi­du­al who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the per­son does. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemy.” This is the way to do it. When the oppor­tu­ni­ty pres­ents its­elf when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.

Now for the few moments left, let us move from the prac­ti­cal how to the theo­re­ti­cal why. It’s not only necessa­ry to know how to go about loving your enemies, but also to go down into the ques­ti­on of why we should love our enemies. I think the first rea­son that we should love our enemies, and I think this was at the very cen­ter of Jesus’ thin­king, is this: that hate for hate only inten­si­fies the exis­tence of hate and evil in the uni­ver­se. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infi­ni­tum. It just never ends. Somewhere some­bo­dy must have a litt­le sen­se, and that’s the strong per­son. The strong per­son is the per­son who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. And that is the tra­ge­dy of hate, that it doesn’t cut it off. It only inten­si­fies the exis­tence of hate and evil in the uni­ver­se. Somebody must have reli­gi­on enough and mora­li­ty enough to cut it off and inject wit­hin the very struc­tu­re of the uni­ver­se that strong and power­ful ele­ment of love.

I think I men­tio­ned befo­re that some­time ago my bro­ther and I were dri­ving one evening to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was dri­ving the car. And for some rea­son the dri­vers were very dis­cour­te­ous that night. They didn’t dim their lights; hard­ly any dri­ver that pas­sed by dim­med his lights. And I remem­ber very vivid­ly, my bro­ther A. D. loo­ked over and in a tone of anger said: “I know what I’m going to do. The next car that comes along here and refu­ses to dim the lights, I’m going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power.” And I loo­ked at him right quick and said: “Oh no, don’t do that. There’d be too much light on this high­way, and it will end up in mutu­al dest­ruc­tion for all. Somebody got to have some sen­se on this highway.”

Somebody must have sen­se enough to dim the lights, and that is the trou­ble, isn’t it? That as all of the civi­liz­a­ti­ons of the world move up the high­way of histo­ry, so many civi­liz­a­ti­ons, having loo­ked at other civi­liz­a­ti­ons that refu­sed to dim the lights, and they deci­ded to refu­se to dim theirs. And Toynbee tells that out of the twen­ty-two civi­liz­a­ti­ons that have risen up, all but about seven have found them­sel­ves in the junk­heap of dest­ruc­tion. It is becau­se civi­liz­a­ti­ons fail to have sen­se enough to dim the lights. [8] And if some­bo­dy doesn’t have sen­se enough to turn on the dim and beau­ti­ful and power­ful lights of love in this world, the who­le of our civi­liz­a­ti­on will be plun­ged into the abyss of dest­ruc­tion. And we will all end up des­troy­ed becau­se nobo­dy had any sen­se on the high­way of histo­ry. Somewhere some­bo­dy must have some sen­se. Men must see that for­ce begets for­ce, hate begets hate, tough­ness begets tough­ness. And it is all a descen­ding spi­ral, ulti­mate­ly ending in dest­ruc­tion for all and ever­y­bo­dy. Somebody must have sen­se enough and mora­li­ty enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the uni­ver­se. And you do that by love.

There’s ano­t­her rea­son why you should love your enemies, and that is becau­se hate distorts the per­so­na­li­ty of the hater. We usual­ly think of what hate does for the indi­vi­du­al hated or the indi­vi­du­als hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tra­gic, it is even more ruin­ous and inju­rious to the indi­vi­du­al who hates. You just begin hating some­bo­dy, and you will begin to do irra­tio­nal things. You can’t see strai­ght when you hate. You can’t walk strai­ght when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your visi­on is dis­tor­ted. There is not­hing more tra­gic than to see an indi­vi­du­al who­se heart is fil­led with hate. He comes to the point that he beco­mes a patho­lo­gi­cal case. For the per­son who hates, you can stand up and see a per­son and that per­son can be beau­ti­ful, and you will call them ugly. For the per­son who hates, the beau­ti­ful beco­mes ugly and the ugly beco­mes beau­ti­ful. For the per­son who hates, the good beco­mes bad and the bad beco­mes good. For the per­son who hates, the true beco­mes fal­se and the fal­se beco­mes true. That’s what hate does. You can’t see right. The sym­bol of objec­ti­vi­ty is lost. Hate des­troys the very struc­tu­re of the per­so­na­li­ty of the hater.

And this is why Jesus says hate, that you want to be inte­gra­ted with yourself, and the way to be inte­gra­ted with yourself is be sure that you meet every situa­ti­on of life with an aboun­ding love. Never hate, becau­se it ends up in tra­gic, neu­ro­tic respon­ses. [9] Psychologists and psych­ia­trists are tel­ling us today that the more we hate, the more we deve­lop guilt fee­lings and we begin to sub­con­scious­ly repress or con­scious­ly sup­press cer­tain emo­ti­ons, and they all stack up in our sub­con­scious sel­ves and make for tra­gic, neu­ro­tic respon­ses. And may this not be the neu­ro­ses of many indi­vi­du­als as they con­front life that that is an ele­ment of hate the­re. And modern psy­cho­lo­gy is cal­ling on us now to love. But long befo­re modern psy­cho­lo­gy came into being, the world’s grea­test psy­cho­lo­gist who wal­ked around the hills of Galilee told us to love. He loo­ked at men and said: “Love your enemies; don’t hate any­bo­dy.” It’s not enough for us to hate your friends because—to to love your friends—because when you start hating any­bo­dy, it des­troys the very cen­ter of your crea­ti­ve respon­se to life and the uni­ver­se; so love ever­y­bo­dy. Hate at any point is a can­cer that gnaws away at the very vital cen­ter of your life and your exis­tence. It is like ero­ding acid that eats away the best and the objec­ti­ve cen­ter of your life. So Jesus says love, becau­se hate des­troys the hater as well as the hated.

Now the­re is a final rea­son I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has wit­hin it a redemp­ti­ve power. And the­re is a power the­re that even­tual­ly trans­forms indi­vi­du­als. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” 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. You just keep loving peop­le and keep loving them, even though they’re mistrea­ting you. Here’s the per­son who is a neigh­bor, and this per­son is doing some­thing wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friend­ly to that per­son. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarr­ass them. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the begin­ning. They react with bit­ter­ness becau­se they’re mad becau­se you love them like that. They react with guilt fee­lings, and some­ti­mes they’ll hate you a litt­le more at that tran­si­ti­on peri­od, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemp­ti­ve, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s some­thing about love that builds up and is crea­ti­ve. There is some­thing about hate that tears down and is dest­ruc­ti­ve. “love your enemies.”

I think of one of the best examp­les of this. We all remem­ber the gre­at pre­si­dent of this United States, Abraham Lincoln—these United States rather. You remem­ber when Abraham Lincoln was run­ning for pre­si­dent of the United States, the­re was a man who ran all around the coun­try tal­king about Lincoln. He said a lot of bad things about Lincoln, a lot of unkind things. And some­ti­mes he would get to the point that he would even talk about his loo­ks, say­ing, “You don’t want a tall, lan­ky, igno­rant man like this as the pre­si­dent of the United States.” He went on and on and on and went around with that type of atti­tu­de and wro­te about it. Finally, one day Abraham Lincoln was elec­ted pre­si­dent of the United States. And if you read the gre­at bio­gra­phy of Lincoln, if you read the gre­at works about him, you will dis­co­ver that as every pre­si­dent comes to the point, he came to the point of having to choo­se a Cabinet. [10] And then came the time for him to choo­se a Secretary of War. He loo­ked across the nati­on, and deci­ded to choo­se a man by the name of Mr. Stanton. And when Abraham Lincoln stood around his advi­sors and men­tio­ned this fact, they said to him: “Mr. Lincoln, are you a fool? Do you know what Mr. [Edwin M.] Stanton has been say­ing about you? Do you know what he has done, tried to do to you? Do you know that he has tried to defeat you on every hand? Do you know that, Mr. Lincoln? Did you read all of tho­se dero­ga­to­ry state­ments that he made about you?” Abraham Lincoln stood befo­re the advi­sors around him and said: “Oh yes, I know about it. I read about it. I’ve heard him mys­elf. But after loo­king over the coun­try, I find that he is the best man for the job.”

Mr. Stanton did beco­me Secretary of War, and a few mon­ths later, Abraham Lincoln was assas­si­na­ted. And if you go to Washington, you will dis­co­ver that one of the grea­test words or state­ments ever made by, about Abraham Lincoln was made about this man Stanton. And as Abraham Lincoln came to the end of his life, Stanton stood up and said: “Now he belongs to the ages.” And he made a beau­ti­ful state­ment con­cer­ning the cha­rac­ter and the sta­tu­re of this man. If Abraham Lincoln had hated Stanton, if Abraham Lincoln had ans­we­red ever­ything Stanton said, Abraham Lincoln would have not trans­for­med and redeemed Stanton. Stanton would have gone to his gra­ve hating Lincoln, and Lincoln would have gone to his gra­ve hating Stanton. But through the power of love Abraham Lincoln was able to rede­em Stanton.

That’s it. There is a power in love that our world has not dis­co­ve­r­ed yet. Jesus dis­co­ve­r­ed it cen­tu­ries ago. Mahatma Gandhi of India dis­co­ve­r­ed it a few years ago, but most men and most women never dis­co­ver it. For they belie­ve in hit­ting for hit­ting; they belie­ve in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; they belie­ve in hating for hating; but Jesus comes to us and says, “This isn’t the way.”

And oh this morning, as I think of the fact that our world is in tran­si­ti­on now. Our who­le world is facing a revo­lu­ti­on. Our nati­on is facing a revo­lu­ti­on, our nati­on. One of the things that con­cerns me most is that in the midst of the revo­lu­ti­on of the world and the midst of the revo­lu­ti­on of this nati­on, that we will dis­co­ver the mea­ning of Jesus’ words. History unfor­tu­n­a­te­ly lea­ves some peop­le oppres­sed and some peop­le opp­res­sors. And the­re are three ways that indi­vi­du­als who are oppres­sed can deal with their opp­res­si­on. One of them is to rise up against their opp­res­sors with phy­si­cal vio­lence and cor­ro­ding hat­red. But oh this isn’t the way. For the dan­ger and the weak­ness of this method is its futi­li­ty. Violence crea­tes many more social pro­blems than it sol­ves. And I’ve said, in so many instan­ces, that as the Negro, in par­ti­cu­lar, and colo­red peo­p­les all over the world strugg­le for free­dom, if they suc­cumb to the tempt­ati­on of using vio­lence in their strugg­le, unborn genera­ti­ons will be the reci­pi­ents of a long and deso­la­te night of bit­ter­ness, and our chief lega­cy to the future will be an end­less reign of mea­ningless cha­os. Violence isn’t the way.

Another way is to acquie­sce and to give in, to resign yourself to the opp­res­si­on. Some peop­le do that. They dis­co­ver the dif­fi­cul­ties of the wil­der­ness moving into the pro­mi­sed land, and they would rather go back to the des­pots of Egypt becau­se it’s dif­fi­cult to get in the pro­mi­sed land. And so they resign them­sel­ves to the fate of opp­res­si­on; they somehow acquie­sce to this thing. But that too isn’t the way becau­se non-coope­ra­ti­on with evil is as much a moral obli­ga­ti­on as is coope­ra­ti­on with good.

But the­re is ano­t­her way. And that is to orga­ni­ze mass non-vio­lent resis­tance based on the princip­le of love. It seems to me that this is the only way as our eyes look to the future. As we look out across the years and across the genera­ti­ons, let us deve­lop and move right here. We must dis­co­ver the power of love, the power, the redemp­ti­ve power of love. And when we dis­co­ver that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men bet­ter. Love is the only way. Jesus dis­co­ve­r­ed that.

Not only did Jesus dis­co­ver it, even gre­at mili­ta­ry lea­ders dis­co­ver that. One day as Napoleon came toward the end of his care­er and loo­ked back across the years, the gre­at Napoleon that at a very ear­ly age had all but con­que­red the world. He was not stop­ped until he beca­me, till he moved out to the batt­le of Leipzig and then to Waterloo. But that same Napoleon one day stood back and loo­ked across the years, and said: “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have built gre­at empi­res. But upon what did they depend? They depen­ded upon for­ce. But long ago Jesus star­ted an empi­re that depen­ded on love, and even to this day mil­li­ons will die for him.”

Yes, I can see Jesus wal­king around the hills and the val­leys of Palestine. And I can see him loo­king out at the Roman Empire with all of her fasci­na­ting and intri­ca­te mili­ta­ry machine­ry. But in the midst of that, I can hear him say­ing: “I will not use this method. Neither will I hate the Roman Empire.” [Recording inter­rup­ted] [ …] just start mar­ching. [11]

And I’m proud to stand here in Dexter this morning and say that that army is still mar­ching. It grew up from a group of ele­ven or twel­ve men to more than seven hund­red mil­li­on today. Because of the power and influ­ence of the per­so­na­li­ty of this Christ, he was able to split histo­ry into A.D. and B.C. Because of his power, he was able to shake the hin­ges from the gates of the Roman Empire. And all around the world this morning, we can hear the glad echo of hea­ven ring: “Jesus shall reign whe­re­ver sun does his suc­ces­si­ve jour­neys run. His king­dom spreads from shore to shore, till moon shall wane and wax no more.” [12]

We can hear ano­t­her cho­rus sin­ging: “All hail the power of Jesus name.”

We can hear ano­t­her cho­rus sin­ging: “Hallelujah, hal­le­lu­jah! He’s King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Hallelujah, hallelujah!”

We can hear ano­t­her choir sin­ging: “In Christ the­re is no East or West. In Him no North or South, but one gre­at fel­low­ship of love throughout the who­le wide world.” [13] This is the only way.

And our civi­liz­a­ti­on must dis­co­ver that. Individuals must dis­co­ver that as they deal with other indi­vi­du­als. There is a litt­le tree plan­ted on a litt­le hill and on that tree hangs the most influ­en­ti­al cha­rac­ter that ever came in this world. But never feel that that tree is a mea­ningless dra­ma that took place on the sta­ges of histo­ry. Oh no, it is a tele­scope through which we look out into the long vis­ta of eter­ni­ty, and see the love of God brea­king forth into time. It is an eter­nal remin­der to a power-drunk genera­ti­on that love is the only way. It is an eter­nal remin­der to a genera­ti­on depen­ding on nuclear and ato­mic ener­gy, a genera­ti­on depen­ding on phy­si­cal vio­lence, that love is the only crea­ti­ve, redemp­ti­ve, trans­forming power in the universe.

So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my bro­thers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” And I’m foo­lish enough to belie­ve that through the power of this love some­whe­re, men of the most recal­ci­trant bent will be trans­for­med. And then we will be in God’s king­dom. We will be able to matri­cu­la­te into the uni­ver­si­ty of eter­nal life becau­se we had the power to love our enemies, to bless tho­se per­sons that cur­sed us, to even deci­de to be good to tho­se per­sons who hated us, and we even pray­ed for tho­se per­sons who des­pi­te­ful­ly used us.

Oh God, help us in our lives and in all of our atti­tu­des, to work out this con­trol­ling for­ce of love, this con­trol­ling power that can sol­ve every pro­blem that we con­front in all are­as. Oh, we talk about poli­tics; we talk about the pro­blems facing our ato­mic civi­liz­a­ti­on. Grant that all men will come tog­e­ther and dis­co­ver that as we sol­ve the cri­sis and sol­ve the­se problems—the inter­na­tio­nal pro­blems, the pro­blems of ato­mic ener­gy, the pro­blems of nuclear ener­gy, and yes, even the race problem—let us join tog­e­ther in a gre­at fel­low­ship of love and bow down at the feet of Jesus. Give us this strong deter­mi­na­ti­on. In the name and spi­rit of this Christ, we pray. 

Amen.


[1]
King, “Love Your Enemies,” 10 November 1957. King also worked on a ver­si­on of this ser­mon for the Journal of Religious Thought; the reprint did not appe­ar until 1970 (Journal of Religious Thought 27 [Summer Supplement 1970]: pp. 31–41).

[2]
Cf. Matthew 5:43–45.

[3]
Cf. Matthew 7:3 and Luke 6:41; see also James Moffatt, The Bible: A New Translation by James Moffatt (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1922).

[4]
Ovid, Metamorphoses, VII, 20: “I see and appro­ve bet­ter things, but fol­low worse.”

[5]
Plato, The Phaedrus, part II.

[6]
King mista­ken­ly repeats his para­phra­se of Ovid. In the Howard University ver­si­on of this ser­mon, he quo­ted Paul: “‘The good that I would I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do”’ (Cf. Romans 7: 19).

[7]
Cf. Fosdick, On Being Fit to Live With: Sermons on Post-war Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1946), pp. 6–7.

[8]
Arnold Joseph Toynbee (1889–1975) was an English his­to­ri­an. In his Howard ser­mon King told the audi­ence, “Oh, my friends, it may be that Western civi­liz­a­ti­on will end up des­troy­ed on the high­way of histo­ry becau­se we fai­led to dim our lights with the gre­at light of love at the right time.”

[9]
When King deli­ve­r­ed this ser­mon at Howard he invo­ked a 1927 essay by African-American socio­lo­gist E. Franklin Frazier, who wro­te: “Southern white peop­le aff­lic­ted with the Negro-com­plex show them­sel­ves inca­pa­ble of per­forming cer­tain social func­tions. They are, for instance, inca­pa­ble of ren­de­ring just decisi­ons when white and colo­red peop­le are invol­ved” (Frazier, “The Pathology of Race Prejudice,” Forum 77 [June 1927]: 856–862).

[10]
King likely refers to Benjamin Thomas’s Abraham Lincoln: A Biography (1952).

[11]
In his Howard ser­mon King said: “I am just going to use love as my ammu­ni­ti­on, and I am going out and put on the bre­ast-pla­te of righ­te­ous­ness and the who­le armour of God and just start marching.”

[12]
King para­phra­ses Isaac Watts’s hymn “Jesus Shall Reign.”

[13]
King refers to the tra­di­tio­nal hymn “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” and quo­tes ver­ses from the “Hallelujah Chorus” of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” and from the Christian hymn “In Christ There is No East or West.”

I wish to ack­now­ledge the Martin Luther King, Jr. Estate Collection as the source for the abo­ve foot­no­tes, the back­ground infor­ma­ti­on at the begin­ning of this page and the first para­graph of this transcript.