The Strength to Love
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Review by Fr. Kurt Messick: In the popular eye, Martin Luther King, Jr. is best known for his work in the Civil Rights struggle during the 1950s and 1960s; his public speeches and public acts are part of the general pattern of American history. However, his ability at public speaking came largely from his experience as a preacher in Black church – the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had a 'day job' as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and as part of this task, he regularly delivered sermons to his congregation. This is a collection of 15 sermons, illustrating major points of King's theology and sense of social justice.
This book has a foreword by Coretta Scott King, who speaks of this book as one that is most influential to others – the primary feature of King's theology and practice, nonviolence, is contained here. King's sense of justice, the love of the divine, the interconnectedness of all peoples in the human community, and King's ultimate sense of optimism come through the powerful words of these sermons.
King's words often take conventional phrases and ideas and bring out new meanings. King's ideas of the practical meaning of being a nonconformist, or of loving one's enemies, put new interpretations on these ideas. King talks of the difficulty of being a nonconformist, and the echoes of the Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau are present, as are theologians such as Niebuhr. King does not speak of the kind of simple nonconformity that typifies teen-age rebellion and angst (which is, in itself a very conformist kind of nonconformity), but rather a working against the prevailing norms of society toward a transformation in love and furtherance of the gospel message.
King states that of all Jesus' commands, the command to love one's enemies is the most difficult to follow in practice. King looks not only at the question of how, but also why should we love our enemies, concluding with the observation that 'love is the most durable power in the world.' Love, being a creative and transformative force, is the greatest hope for lasting and meaningful peace. Quoting Napoleon Bonaparte, who built a great empire, he observes that all empires and authorities that rest on force are destined to fail, but Jesus' empire built on love continues generation after generation.
King risked unpopularity among the dominant white culture of America; this is well known. However, he also risked unpopularity among his own community (and risked giving the powers that be further ammunition against him) by delivering sermons such as 'How should Christians view Communism?' and not giving a unilateral condemnation of the same. This was a perilous stand to take in Cold-War America. Admitting the problems with Communism, King was equally honest about the shortcomings of Capitalism, and wrote, 'We who cannot accept the creed of the Communists recognize their zeal and commitment to a cause which they believe will create a better world.' King takes both Communism and Capitalism to task for failing to appreciate the social aspect of humanity, concentrating more on the Enlightenment-generated individual.
This is no simple Baptist preaching – King's erudition shows through without being oppressive or condescending; he weaves in references from Greek and Roman classics, Shakespeare, English and Continental philosophers, the Declaration of Independence, and American writers with grace and ease, all the while maintaining a close attention to the primary biblical message. King doesn't engage in prooftexting, but does provide a new hermeneutic (for the time) that provides foundation for more recent liberation theologies of diverse strands.
Perhaps pride of place goes to the final sermon in this collection ('and the last shall be first'), which is King's 'Pilgrimage to Nonviolence'. King gives a brief spiritual and intellectual autobiography, talking of his quest for understanding from fundamentalism to liberalism to neo-orthodoxy and beyond; he gives credit to examples such as Gandhi and the people of bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama as proof that nonviolent action can have dramatic, lasting and beneficial power for the whole community. The sermon ends with hope for the future, a future we are called to continue to build.
This is a text to be read again and again, as the words remain fresh and powerful even as nearly half a century has passed since their first utterance. There is inspiration for our time as well as a glimpse of times past in King's sermons. It is worthy of a place in history, and deserves a place in the future.
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