NOTE: Washington Square Branch Library will be CLOSED June 21-24 for repair. Normal open hours at all other locations.

Love Part 9: Martin Luther King, Jr.

(Books, History, Nonfiction) Permanent link

Why didn't I read this book earlier in my life! As I read this in a coffee shop yesterday, exhilarated in a perfect calm, I could not help but have a sense of loss that it took so long to read this book. Books can do so many things to us.

There is no question that love was at the very center of Martin Luther King, Jr's nonviolence:

“At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love…Along the way, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.” And: “Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.”

MLK was a professional lover of enemies. During the height of the Civil Rights movement, you could say that was his full time job. He was the real thing. That’s what he did. He lived and died by loving those who hated him; some hated him consciously, others unconsciously. He proved that enemy-loving was not a pipe dream, not a “pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer”; rather, “the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of the world. Jesus is not an impractical idealist: his is the practical realist.”

He was a minister that drew wisdom from a wide range of thinkers, constantly making allusions to Plato or Hegel (one of his favorites, I've heard), or Lincoln or contemporary Anthropologists. For his nonviolence he drew heavily from Gandhi: “Christ gave us the goals, and Mahatma Gandhi provided the tactics.” Once he stayed all night in Gandhi’s living quarters, drawing strength from a dead man, drawing strength to do the same work that will kill them both.

“When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: ‘Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God.’” (He also clarifies that love does not mean "like", "love is greater than like.") 

How to love enemies:

There are three steps to loving enemies: forgive them, understand them as persons, and reconcile or love them. “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” It is a “fresh start” and “new beginning”…”cancelling of a debt.” To say “I will never forget what you’ve done” is missing the point: “we forget in the sense that the evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding an new relationship.”

Secondly, to understand them as persons, “we must recognize an element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy” and “the evil deed…never quite expresses all that he is.” And when “we see him in a new light,” “we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

Thirdly, to reconcile, or love them, you cannot hurt them, but “win his friendship…every word and deed must contribute to an understanding with the enemy and release those vast reservoirs of goodwill which have been blocked by impenetrable walls of hate.” But seriously, how is this possible? How is this physically possible? By love MLK does not mean “like,” or have emotions and affections for (“love is greater than like”); he means respect, dignity, goodwill; a love backed by wisdom and understanding; compassion; he means the Greek word “agape,” which means “an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return, agape is the love of God operating in the human heart.” He means a love that “is the solution to the problems of the world.” It says “Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you,” even as you “beat us.”

Love requires a degree of intelligence: “one day we will learn that the heart can never be totally right if the head is totally wrong.” We need to be “toughminded” and “tenderhearted,” and the way to bring change is through nonviolence. Ignorance, or “blindness,” is a great cause of evil. People do the wrong thing not because they are evil or ill-willed, but usually because “they know not what they do.” He calls this "blindness":

"Socrates was forced to drink hemlock...they were respectable citizens of Greece...his idea of God had a philosophical depth that probed beyond [their] traditional concepts. Not badness but blindness killed Socrates...The Churchmen who felt that they had an edict from God to withstand the progress of science, whether in the form of a Copernican revolution or a Darwinian theory of natural selection, were not mischievous men but misinformed men."

The end of all of this, of course, is that love wins; but not just for the lover; everyone willing to be transformed by love will win:

“But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

This is because “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” And "I must not ignore the wounded man on life's Jericho Road, because he is a part of me and I am a part of him. His agony diminishes me, and his salvation enlarges me."

For more on MLK, I recommend watching the free course at, "African American History: The Modern Freedom Struggle," especially lecture 10 "Vincent Harding on Martin Luther King, Jr" (he was a friend of MLK). The course on nonvoilence is also good. Or go to and watch his speeches (e.g. "Mountaintop," the speech right before he was killed is incredible and might move you to tears).

Related Posts
Love Part 1: Platonic Love
Love Part 2: Aristotle
Love Part 3: Epictetus and stoic love 
Love Part 4: Marcus Aurelius
Love Part 5: Plotinus 
Love Part 6: the Buddha
Love Part 7: Christian Love
Love Part 8: Augustine


Strength to Love

Posted by Matt Smith at 07/21/2011 09:50:23 AM