I’m going to cheat today and crib from Dr. King, as a suitable way to begin Black History Month. This passage from his Christmas Sermon (as it’s known), delivered in 1967 at Ebenezer Baptist Church, was included in a sermon last night at my church. Read King’s whole sermon here when you get a chance. In the meantime, enjoy the excerpt below.
King begins this section by offering different definitions of love. There’s romantic, or sexual love, which he calls “some of the most beautiful love in all the world.” Then there’s philia, or love among friends, or among brothers and sisters. This kind usually comes easily, because you usually also like the person you love in this way. What we ought to strive for, King says, is agape. This is the love King and the Civil Rights Movement employed to change the hearts of the people with dogs and fire hoses. And also the hearts of complacent Northerners. I love his expression “redemptive good will.”
Then the Greek language has another word for love, and that is the word “agape.” Agape is more than romantic love, it is more than friendship. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all men. Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart. When you rise to love on this level, you love all men not because you like them, not because their ways appeal to you, but you love them because God loves them. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your enemies.” And I’m happy that he didn’t say, “Like your enemies,” because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who would trample over me with injustices. I can’t like them. I can’t like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out. But Jesus reminds us that love is greater than liking. Love is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all men. And I think this is where we are, as a people, in our struggle for racial justice. We can’t ever give up. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship. We must never let up in our determination to remove every vestige of segregation and discrimination from our nation, but we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege to love.
I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.
I’m always reminded, when going back to the source, that Dr. King’s non-violence was not passivity. It wasn’t doing nothing. It was employing an active force of love. King believed, on principle, that he had to love the demons who were threatening his children, for example, and that love could change those demons. Love is redemptive. It takes a long time, but in the long, long view, it works.