Martin Luther King, Jr.: “‘Love Your Enemies'”

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Martin Luther King, Jr.

Love is Not Necessarily “Like”

In a sermon on Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. explains what love does not mean, saying,

“He [Jesus] 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 anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out. But Jesus reminds us that love is greater than liking.”1

Love is Not Merely a Feeling

A human sentiment is passive, coming-and-going with the changing of a person’s emotions. Thus, for Dr. King, love is not mere sentimentality, a “nice” feeling of attraction to the desirable traits in others. On the contrary, many times in a person’s life, love has nothing at all to do with a feeling or emotion. Love is firmly rooted in the human will. It is a choice — the fixed and determined resolution — to love human beings, despite themselves. Love, then, wills the good of others and, especially when hurt, “rebels” against the “natural” feeling or inclination to harm or spite them. As King teaches, “love is greater than like.”2

Love is Not a Moral Weakness 

The way of hate is easy and weak. There is nothing strong about it. A person’s words and acts are simply unleashed, gushing forth from a weak spirit, to hurt others, even inflicting bodily harm on them. Hate, then, requires no development of moral character, that is, no inner resistance or self-control.

But the way of love is hard and strong. It is often a demanding, arduous task that a person is called upon to complete, especially when others want to harm him or her either in word or deed or in both respects. Thus, love is not a weakness. Instead, it requires lots of strength, more than bodily or physical strength. Love is the highest of the moral virtues, because it is a strength of character, which is much more powerful than bodily strength.

For King, there are, indeed, powerful forces in the world, such as the atom bomb, a police officer’s gun and the might of the military itself. But the most powerful force, the virtue that changes the course of civilization for the better, is love. In fact, Dr. King himself changed the course of the United States without ever firing a gun. He never threatened others with physical force. Rather, he changed them with love, often choosing to love the unlovable, those who would seek to harm and even kill him. That, indeed, is power, the power of a different, higher order, issuing from the human spirit.

Love is a Choice

Love is exercising the power of choice. In that sense, love is a power that refuses to hate others, while admitting, in King’s words, that “we love the person who does an evil deed, although we hate the deed that he does.”3 Therefore, according to King, I may not like my enemies. I may even despise their actions. But I must not bring myself so low, acting beneath my dignity as a human being, to hate them. In King’s words,

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate…. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”4

Now, do you see why, as King says, that it requires strength to love? You and I may not be able to stop our enemies from hating us, but we can stop ourselves from hating them. Therefore, love, especially loving the unlovable, is a choice, not a feeling; a strength, not a weakness. Love is power, a power that changes the world for the better.

Endnotes

1. Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in The Trumpet of Conscience (Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 1967), pp. 75-76.

2———-, Strength to Love (Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 47. Italics are the publisher’s.

3.Ibid., p. 46.

4.Ibid., p. 47.

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