Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"Strength to Love" by Martin Luther King Jr. (1963)

In your effort to learn more about the intricacies and the chronology of the Civil Rights movement, you recently read a biography of Dr. King. When you finished it, you decided it made logical sense to then move to a book written, not about the man, but by him.

Dr. King wrote several books but this is not actually a book as much as it is a collection of several sermons he preached during or shortly after the Montgomery bus boycott. Some of these sermons were written from inside jail cells. "Strength to Love" was published the same year that he wrote "Letters from a Birmingham Jail." In his preface, Dr. King reminds his readers that he only published these sermons in this format under protest and at the avid request of many of his most trusted and beloved friends. He was worried the emotional impact of what he wrote would be watered down in book form. Sermons, he clarifies, are meant to be heard, not read.

But as you read these sermons, written by one of the most famous preachers in modern history at the apex of his game and height of his passions, you could hear him. His voice would ring clear in your head, his phrasing, his cadence, his almost musical intonations. You are already a fairly slow reader, but this was a book you savored almost indulgently. Dr. King's written prose transformed into his famous orations in your mind, sweeping you off your couch and into the pews of a sweltering Alabama church in the heat of southern summers that were to be filled with days that would be marked in history books. You even found yourself nodding along with the young preacher who was desperate to change the mind of a nation which had been conceived in liberty but shackled from the moments of its birth by a sin it had yet to atone for. King preaches from these pages as he said he wanted to before he even became a preacher, as a man who crafts sermons that are based on and intelligent faith, as a scholar whose messages are laid out logically and based upon sound philosophical principles. King was a voracious reader and it shows in his sermons. Surprisingly, this man who is famous for being a Southern pastor reminds his congregation from the very beginning that there is no intrinsic conflict between science and religion, exhorting them to be both tough-minded and intelligent. "Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge that is power; religion gives man wisdom that is control... The two are not rivals. They are complementary."

He preached on the importance of intellectual curiosity and the necessity for Christians to be enlightened, not just redeemed. "One day we will learn that the heart can never be totally right if the head is totally wrong." King talks about how the cross is a representation of both, "The beauty of sacrificial love and the majesty of unswerving devotion to the truth... The radiance of the divine, but also the tang of the human. I am reminded not only of Christ at his best, but of Man at his worst."

Addressing the moral defense of challenging segregation and discrimination, Dr. King asserts that to passively accept an unjust system "is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil." And he warns that charitable giving and passive philanthropy won't be enough. "Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make philanthropy necessary." King reminds us of the universal truth that "The ultimate measure of a man (and you would add of a society) is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands in moments of challenge and controversy."

King lays down the creed of a people who are followers of a god who forgave his own tormentors and murderers because he loved them, and they new not what they were doing. Dr. King professes that this is a lesson that loving our enemies is the only way to solve the problems of the world (not just American segregation). Refuting Nietzsche, King observes that, "Jesus is not an impractical idealist; he is the practical realist." Vengeance, God demands, belongs to him alone, yet he delivers mercy and forgiveness and love instead. Dr. King was trying to lead a movement that was motivated by the same principles.

He knew that secret that is so hard for all of us to remember even today, that ignorance does not make our enemies evil, it makes them pitiable. Those who are blind to their actions, who 'know not what they do,' deserve our patience and our love rather than our scorn and our hate. King's was the first revolutionary social movement that fought against the boots at their throats while still remembering to stop to consider how the people wearing those boots were doing. Of course freedom for his oppressed people was the primary motivator for Dr. King, but, somehow, he was also motivated by his passion to save the souls of his oppressors too. In one of his most profound moments, King preaches that, "Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship... The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies."

Dr. King uses colonialism as well as segregation as a symbol for modern day evil. As colonies across the globe throughout the 1960's asserted their independence from war weary empires, King reminded his congregation that oppression, either from a foreign occupying power or from a powerful and ensconced racial majority, can be overcome. Indeed, he says that the Bible promises that it will be overcome and God will come to the aide of those who help defeat injustice. King preaches passionately that good will overcome evil in the end, that the struggle is not in vain. The Bible uses the symbol of a serpent to remind us that humanity has never been free from evil, and the Egyptians who enslaved the Israelites serve as a reminder that God will overcome evil no matter how long is might take. "In the long run," King preaches, "Right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant."

This philosophy reflects Dr. King's confident optimism, rooted in the knowledge that evil is always self-defeating. This is not the naive belief of a man who ignores the teachings of history or the experience of generations of oppressed and abused souls. It is the wisdom of a man who knows that every step towards freedom and every victory on the road to righting the world will be met with renewed obstacles and fresh battlegrounds. But the moral arc of history bends towards justice and hope is never ultimately in vain. King warns his congregation to not fall into the traps of cynicism, bitterness, or fatalism, not to give in to the claim that everything is preordained. He answers those ideas with the assertion that freedom is an essential part of humanity claiming that, "Freedom is always within the framework of destiny."

Recognizing that humans must have freedom of action as a part of their identity, King reminds us that God is still in control of the end of the story. "Man is free to go north from Atlanta to Washington or south from Atlanta to go to Miami, but not north to Miami or south to Washington." He repeats again and again that we believers should accept even the most bitter of tragedies secure in the knowledge that these are merely "Finite disappointments even as we adhere to infinite hope." We may not live to see the world made right in our time, but we Christians are believers that good will emerge victorious in the end.

Dr. King quotes from great philosophers and ancient poets, confident enough to assert the simple truth found in some timeworn adage yet bold enough to argue the folly of some revered philosophical assertions, taking on Hegel and Kant and Nietzsche. Expounding on his ideas that humanity must work towards a better world while also recognizing that the fight would require sacrifices and great suffering he notes that, "The Renaissance was too optimistic, and the Reformation too pessimistic. The former so concentrated on the goodness of man that it overlooked his capacity for evil; the latter so concentrated on the wickedness of man that it overlooked his capacity for goodness." But humanity cannot wait, passive and comfortable, for a just God to fix the world without any effort on our part. "We must learn," King implores, "That to expect God to do everything while we do nothing is not faith but superstition."

In his most surprisingly ambitious sermon, Dr. King wrote as the apostle Paul, imagining what the zealous leader of the First Century church would have had to say to American Christians in the middle part of the 20th Century. King, as Paul, reminds the citizens of a nation that calls itself Christian to be, "Sure that the means you employ are as pure as the end you seek. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter... Let no man pull you so low that you hate him. Always avoid violence. If you sow the seeds of violence in your struggle, unborn generations will reap the whirlwind of social disintegration."

In a dark and hyper violent time, Dr. King preached a message of hope and faith in a better future, a belief that we can become better today than we were yesterday. He believed that people must work hard to achieve a world that God desired here on Earth. His deep faith in a just and loving god married with his philosophical faith in the innate goodness of humanity and inspired a generation to rise above the collective sins of their ancestors, to sever the long chains of injustice to become better people. He inspired a people to find the strength to love.

On to the next book!

P.S. You were surprised to find included in this collection a sermon on the evils of Communism calling it the only serious rival to Christianity. King honestly recognizes the weakness inherent in unrestricted Capitalism. He claims that the selfishness and materialism intrinsic in our own system, "Inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life." Dr. King was targeted and surveiled by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI because of the suspicions he leaned a little too far to the left. For a pinko commie, the good Dr. King sure delivers a rousing condemnation of Soviet style Communism, deftly dismantling the pillars of the political belief system even as he admits the failures of the Christian church in fighting for social, economic, and racial justice. Those failures may have laid the groundwork for the rise of an atheistic solution to some of the greater injustices in the world. In a moment of tortured self-incrimination, he asks, "Is Communism alive in the world today because we have not been Christian enough?" But, unsurprisingly, King insists that war is not the answer to defeating the threat of godless Communism, especially since that war might very well mean the end of the world he was trying so hard to make a better place. Christians must assert the power and the rightness of their own philosophy as a viable and hopeful alternative to the Soviets. And then, King says, we must seek, "To remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, injustice, and racial discrimination that are the fertile soil in which the seeds of Communism grows and develops. Communism thrives only when the doors of opportunity are closed and human aspirations are stifled." No offense, Hoover, but that man sounds like a lousy Communist.

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