Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a sermon on Nov. 17, 1957, at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The title was “Loving Your Enemies.” His sermon text was “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.”
Referring to this text from the Gospel of Matthew, King said: “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.”
Two events of the last week have led me to read that sermon again and again. The first was my class titled “Peace and Justice.”
Two of King’s writings were part of the assignment for the week. Besides “Loving Your Enemies,” students were to read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” As we began to discuss the difficulty of loving your enemy, there was a general consensus that it was more than difficult, it was almost impossible. But they were grateful for King’s understanding of love and it made the challenge of Jesus more reasonable.
Using the gift of the Greek language, King reminded his listeners that there were three different words for love. One is “eros”. This is the love we generally see as romantic love. Another is “philia.” normally associated with the love of friendship. And the third is “agape,” which is the love of God made known in the lives of all. For King, this love is an “understanding, redemptive goodwill for all people, so you love everybody, because God loves them.” This is the love Jesus incarnated.
This understanding of “agape” was key for my students to understanding this charge from Jesus. They also resonated with the first step King suggests in loving the enemy. He instructs us to examine ourself. Don’t focus on all the bad things about the enemy. Look inward and assess how and why there is this brokenness. Perhaps there is a forgotten slight or an unforgiven deed.
The previous week in class we had heard the advice of another King, T. Marie King, a Birmingham, Alabama, activist in racial healing. She wrote a little book, “Six Simple Keys to Living a Lifestyle of Forgiveness.” She also emphasizes beginning with introspection. You need to identify your wounds and your wounding. And forgiveness, if it is to happen, requires a decision to forgive.
The second event that sent me back to this sermon of M.L. King was the National Prayer Breakfast. Here was President Trump, seated on the podium several chairs away from Speaker of the House Pelosi, the day after being acquitted in the impeachment trial by the Senate, both of them listening to the morning speaker talk about this same text, loving your enemies.
Arthur Brooks of Harvard University was the keynote speaker. At one point in his talk, he asked the audience, “How many of you love someone with whom you disagree politically.” Many raised their hands, but not the president. The first thing the president said when he began his speech was, he didn’t think he agreed with Professor Brooks. In his remarks, he mentioned that loving his enemies was hard, especially after what he and his family had just been through. He included some negative comments about two of those enemies, Nancy Pelosi and Mitt Romney. Still, there was an almost first-time-ever confession that he wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t able to love his enemies; “I’m trying to learn, it’s not easy.”
Back at the White House later, to a room full of loyal supporters, the president was more forceful about denouncing his enemies and even joking about the likelihood of deep and lasting marital love. And perhaps it wasn’t ironic, that less than 24 hours after Senator Romney voted for one of the articles of impeachment in an emotional speech on the Senate floor (with only four members present to hear it), protections on two treasured national monuments in Senator Romney’s Utah were removed.
Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are now up for grabs. The Vet Voice Foundation writes, “As veterans, we swore an oath to protect and defend this nation. That includes fighting to protect our public lands. The president and Secretary Bernhardt may see these spaces as opportunities for making money and political gamesmanship. We see them as sacred places where people – veterans and non-veterans – turn to for solace, peace, and healing.”
Enemies seem prolific in our political life. Forgiveness and love appear beyond reach. Many feel caught in a dark night of the national soul. A rising stock market is not enough.
But, at least someone is asking us to raise our hand to love our enemy, to say amen to the way of Jesus, to hear again the challenge to love our enemies. Perhaps we need a truly national prayer breakfast, where we can all be invited to do some inner exploration and take a step, or two, into a more fruitful and promising future.