King’s Gospel Message: Love Your Enemies
“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, so that you may be children of God in heaven. … Be perfect, therefore, as God is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-45, 48)
“But I say to you that listen, ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’ ... Your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as God is merciful.” (Luke 6:27, 35b-36)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Gospel preacher. As a child watching him on TV, I knew he was a man of God, leading freedom marches, enduring violence and insult, being hauled off to jail for our people again and again.
He was our Moses in my child’s eye; the great leader-prophet speaking God’s commands of liberation to a land of hardened-hearted Pharaohs. He was the Sunday school lesson that leaped off the card into the evening newscast.
In many ways, I still regard Dr. King in that manner. But as I listen to his speeches and read his sermons each year as his birthday holiday approaches, I’ve begun to experience another side of Dr. King – the local preacher. He spoke truth to power, but like a good church pastor, he also brought words of hope and instruction for the wellbeing of the soul to the folk who sat in the pews. I felt among those parishioners this year when reading one of Dr. King’s sermons in his book, Strength To Love.
The whole notion of loving enemies has always been difficult for me. I never sought energy to hate enemies, just room to stay away from them, which is not the same thing as love. Love is proactive, and frankly, that just seemed like too much to expect. Maybe this was another one of Jesus’ hyperbolic teachings like, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. …” And if that’s the case, not hating is sufficient. I’ve been in church my whole life and can’t recall ever hearing a sermon on simply “not hating,” which leads me to believe I’m not the only one who thinks it way past much.
The only problem with my argument is the second part of Christ’s teaching on loving enemies, namely, the reason to do so: “…that you may be children of God in heaven; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
Dr. King took these words of Jesus literally and offered some practical ways to love our enemies – whether they’re personal or corporate; across the street or on the other side of the globe:
- Maintain the capacity to forgive and reconcile;
- Don’t confuse love with sentimental outpouring;
- Remember, even your enemies still have some good inside; and
- Don’t seek to defeat or humiliate your enemies, but rather to win their friendship and understanding.
Loving enemies is not easy, but Pastor King gave this encouragement to the flock:
“We should be happy that he did not say, ‘Like your enemies.’… Like is a sentimental and affectionate word. How can we be affectionate toward a person whose avowed aim is to crush our very being and place innumerable stumbling blocks in our path?” … That is impossible. But Jesus recognized that love is greater than like. When Jesus bids us to love our enemies, … he is speaking of agape, understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. Only by following this way and responding with this type of love are we able to be children of our Father who is in heaven.”