This essay by Pastor Tom Breeden is a part of our blog series, A Celebration of Diverse Faith. To learn more about the work we do with faith communities and get involved, click here.
Every January, we start talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. again. His quotes begin making the rounds on social media. Television stations and streaming platforms start advertising documentaries about his life and work. Children celebrate a three-day weekend from school.
If you live in the United States, you probably know a lot about Dr. King – I certainly thought I did! It wasn’t until my pastor encouraged me to read Dr. King’s writings more deeply that I encountered a man who challenged me in ways I didn’t even know I needed. Whatever nostalgic notions I may have had went out the window as I stood face-to-face with a man whose driving motivation was love. It wasn’t the warm and fuzzy kind of love, but the long-suffering and self-sacrificing kind. Through this deeper dive into his writings, I came to understand faith better and realize just how much Dr. King had to teach me about following Jesus Christ.
As a new pastor myself, I began to see how Dr. King’s role as a pastor shaped his life and work. His commitment to love was not out of some shallow sentimentality. Instead, love sat at the center of his pastoral calling as the overflow of a deep well of Christian faith.
This faith permeates his writings, but one passage challenges me more than any other. Strength to Love is a collection of his published sermons, and it includes one on Matthew 5:43 – 44. These two verses of Scripture are fairly well-known, both inside and outside the church walls, because it’s here that Jesus Christ told his disciples to love their enemies. Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
That’s a radical enough commandment even without further reflection, but just listen to how Dr. King applied it to life in the Jim Crow South:
“To our most bitter opponents, we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot, in all good conscience, obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half-dead, and we shall still love you. 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.”
Yes, he would oppose the evil of segregation, and he would encourage others to do the same. Dr. King’s vision for the Beloved Community obligated him to advocate for justice and care for the oppressed. Anything less would fall short of the dream.
But defeating the segregationists was not a victory because segregationists were people too. It was one thing to oppose ideas and systems, but Dr. King resolved not to make enemies of people. The double victory he wanted could only be complete when the segregationists could leave their racism behind and sit with him at the table as his friends.
I’ve spent years marinating on this quote’s repetition of “and we shall still love you.” I’ve come to appreciate more and more just how Gospel-saturated it is. King’s double victory is an outgrowth of what he believed as a Christian. At the heart of the Christian understanding of everything is the fact that the world has been torn asunder by sin. We now find ourselves as enemies of God and often as enemies of each other. But even in this tattered state, God continues to love the world. The Father loves the world enough to send the Son, Jesus Christ, to come and restore what sin has broken.
Because Dr. King was a pastor, he had surely read the Gospels plenty. He knew that Jesus Christ didn’t come to vanquish his enemies; he came to win them as friends. Christ died on a cross not to slay his enemies but to bring them home through faith in him. It’s that understanding of the Christian faith that lies behind Dr. King’s conviction to love even his most bitter opponents. If Christ loved his enemies, then so should Christians.
How could King love those who made him suffer? Because God loved him with an even deeper love. If God would suffer to win his enemies as friends, so would Dr. King. If God would willingly suffer at the hands of his enemies, then Dr. King wouldn’t lift a hand against his enemies either.
I need to hear this, and if you’re anything like me, I’ll bet you do, too. We live in a time of fierce division—division about masks and vaccines, racial justice, and social reform, just to name a few. When we’re this bitterly divided, it’s easy to start seeing the “other side” as our enemies. And what do we do with enemies? We seek to defeat them, that’s what!
But that only makes the problem worse! Instead, the Christian faith invites us to a better way. It’s a way that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. emulated and is most fully embodied by Jesus Christ.
- Instead of defeating our enemies, we love them.
- Instead of seeking to destroy them, we strive to build them up.
- Instead of viewing others as obstacles to overcome or resources to be managed, we see them as friends yet to be.
Maybe that sounds naïve or impossible to you, but such an impossibility is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Just as God loved us when we were his enemies, so we who find our identity in Jesus Christ go and love our enemies. The question for us today is this: If the love of God could overcome sin on the cross, do we have the faith to believe it can overcome our troubles, too? Dr. King teaches us that when we start with faith like that, love follows.
 King Jr, Martin Luther. Strength to Love. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010. 50-51.