Formation

Finding the Strength to Love from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illumines it. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love

The North American church is struggling to choose love over hate.

We have discovered that we prefer anger and shouting instead of engaging in the hard work of love. In his Washington Post article titled Too Many Americans are Controversy Junkies, David Von Drehle writes:

The oversupply of controversy is bottomless, because some human somewhere is always indulging in a thoughtless blurt, and social media seduces us to publish our blurts for the world to overhear.

Unfortunately, we in the church have also been seduced by the media to blurt. We blurt our hatred of our country’s leaders. We blurt disdain and outrage for our own (divided) Christian sisters and brothers.

David Fitch, a Missio Alliance Leading Voice, hopes for more from us. Addressing this new norm of polarizing, divisive discourse in his article, “How #TakeAKnee Teaches Us To Be Christian in the New Normal of American Politics,” he writes:

Will the church see this new normal as the opportunity to be the church and work for God’s subversive healing revolution that our country so desperately needs in this time in American politics?

Love and Forgiveness in the Most Unexpected of Places

One woman’s unimaginable forgiveness story brought this home for me recently. On a visit to Rwanda in December of 2017, I had the privilege of meeting Alice who daily lives the decision to choose love over hate.

On a visit to Rwanda in December of 2017, I had the privilege of meeting Alice who daily lives the decision to choose love over hate. @lengelthaler Click To Tweet

In 1994, when the Rwandan genocide killings began, Alice hid in a swamp with her 9-month-old daughter. Soldiers discovered Alice and ordered two village men to kill her. One man cut off her hand and the other one pierced Alice with a spear. Alice’s baby died and she herself was left for dead, then later was rescued by other soldiers.

It is horrific to think of going on with life after experiencing such trauma and loss. But Alice chose more than just living. She chose the unthinkable: forgiveness and reconciliation with her killers. Today Alice lives in the same village and works alongside Emmanuel—the very man who cut off her hand.

After serving the sentence for his atrocities, Emmanuel found Alice and asked for her forgiveness. Alice not only forgave Emmanuel, she chose to co-own a tree farm business with him and to live alongside him as neighbors in a place soberly named the Village of Testimony and Forgiveness. They began their covenant of forgiveness by planting avocado trees in the yards of each other’s homes. Alice said, “So that when the children grow up and eat the fruit, they will know that it is a sign of forgiveness.”

Reading Alice’s story made me want to meet her in person. So I was grateful when ALARM, the nonprofit I was working with, took me and my teammates to visit her village. We toured the community gardens and played with the kids. Then, as we were about to leave, a strikingly beautiful woman with an amazing smile came over to greet us. As I spotted Alice’s arm with the missing hand, I could not shake off the feeling that I was standing on holy ground.

On the bus ride back to Rwanda’s capital Kilgali, one of my teammates said, “After meeting Alice, there is nothing in my life that is unforgivable. Nothing.” The others were silent. I began to cry. As 2017 was coming to a close, I realized that I had moved a long way from forgiveness.  

On the bus ride back to Rwanda’s capital Kilgali, one of my teammates said, 'After meeting Alice, there is nothing in my life that is unforgivable. Nothing.' @lengelthaler Click To Tweet

Alice and Emmanuel are actual neighbors in real houses, not a virtual community somewhere out in the twittersphere. I am sure it was not always easy. (And I am sure this could not have happened without Emmanuel’s willingness to confess and own his responsibility for the horrifying wrong he had done to Alice). Over coffee I told one friend about Alice’s story and all she said was, “I could not do that. No way.” How many of us would say the same?

Back in my benign suburbia, I thought about the ridiculousness of how I can hardly get along with one neighbor because of his opposing political yard signs or the one with the annoying barking dog. Alice could teach me, and my church, much about loving our real “see you in your robe at the mailbox” neighbors and our easy to hate-on virtual ones.

Like Reverend King, instead of hate, Alice chose love.

Following the Legacy of King to Choose Love Again

In his powerful book, Strength to Love, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.

Referring to Dr. King, genocide survivor Celestine Musekura said, “The choice is not between forgiveness and unforgiveness; our choice is between forgiveness and nonexistence.”

Rwanda brought me back to the hope for love and forgiveness that I had heard in a church service on MLK Day at the beginning of 2017. 

I began 2017 by attending a church service with a predominately Black congregation to honor Dr. King. We prayed for our city, heard difficult stories of overcoming, and were moved as a teenage girl recited a powerful reading from King’s writings. The service launched my new year with hope for change and love of my fellow human. Jumping on the “one word” New Year resolution craze, I chose a lofty word akin to love.

As the year came to a halt, on the long flight from Rwanda to Dallas, I had time to think about what had become of my love resolution. Rereads of my journal entries or twitter feed revealed that my actual chosen lived out “one word” had nothing to do with love.

Much of 2017 was spent in plain old ugly hate.

In response to too many horrific news stories, my go-to emoticon was the face with the rolling eyes. A quick swipe of my phone revealed it in my favorites—ironically right next to the red “XOs”—to be easily accessed for my hate-filled comments.

The gospel writer Mark said that second to loving God, loving your neighbor is the greatest commandment. I find it remarkably timely that the MLK holiday is at the first of the year. Regardless of how we have failed in the previous year, it is never too late to recommit ourselves to love for this next one.

Although the North American Church and I might have failed in 2017, in January we can choose again to obey God by loving our neighbors. @lengelthaler Click To Tweet

I plan to begin 2018 by attending the same church service honoring Dr. King that I went to last year. When I asked who would be on the agenda, I heard one story of two churches making small steps towards living together as neighbors.

This past fall, the female pastor of a predominantly White church reached out to the women’s ministry leader at a neighboring Black church and asked if they could bring the women in their two congregations together for dinner. The churches had done a few community events together but this was a more intimate sit-down-dinner solely for women. Certainly, it had the potential for tense conversation across racial or political lines or misunderstandings as women of different races planned a meal together. And yet, both women will be sharing about their growing relationship on stage at the next MLK church service. In their testimony, I see hope for the church in North America as congregations like theirs take small steps to close the distance.

After meeting Alice in Rwanda, I am resolved more than ever to choose love over hate in 2018.

Will you join me?

For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
The Apostle Paul

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A new command I give you: Love one another.
Jesus

You and I will be in good company.


Resources

Forgiving As We’ve Been Forgiven by Genocide survivor Celestin Musekura and L. Gregory Jones

Strength to Love by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Can the (White) Church Hear Rev. King Today?  by J.R. Rozko

Missio Alliance’s Core Cultural Issues. One of the reasons that I chose to serve on the Board of Missio Alliance is that from the beginning we committed to doing the hard work of loving one another in the messiness of a diverse community of believers—who perhaps in years past could have easily chosen hate over love.

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