Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon titled “Loving Your Enemies” on November 17, 1957, at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. According to King, he was “forced to preach under a bit of a handicap” that morning and had even seen a doctor before coming to church. The doctor advised him to stay in bed for the morning, but King insisted that he go and preach.
It wasn’t because he had something new to say that he had disobeyed his doctor’s orders to stay in bed. As he began his sermon that morning, he remarked on the familiarity of the subject matter.
I want to use as a subject from which to preach this morning a very familiar subject, and it is familiar to you because I have preached from this subject twice before to my knowing in this pulpit. I try to make it a, something of a custom or tradition to preach from this passage of Scripture at least once a year, adding new insights that I develop along the way out of new experiences as I give these messages.
What was this familiar subject? What was it that he had already preached on twice before that was so important that he had to preach it again, even when he should have been at home in bed?
So I want to turn your attention to this subject: “Loving Your Enemies.” It’s so basic to me because it is a part of my basic philosophical and theological orientation the whole idea of love, the whole philosophy of love. In the fifth chapter of the gospel as recorded by Saint Matthew, we read these very arresting words flowing from the lips of our Lord and Master: “Ye have heard that it has been said, “Thou shall love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.” But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.
Loving your enemies is something that King referred to as “so basic” to him because it was part of his “basic philosophical and theological orientation,” which was the “idea of love, the whole philosophy of love.” He understood God as love and therefore understood the life and death of Jesus as the supreme act of love, which perfectly revealed the love of God. King knew that love was how God dealt with his enemies and therefore love was the means by which God would save the world. According to King, love “is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.”
King didn’t see loving your enemies as an option, something that Christians had a choice as to whether or not they would do. He believed that followers of Jesus had both a Christian and a moral responsibility to love their enemies. In his sermon he addresses both how and why Christians are to love their enemies. It is his reasons why that are most fascinating.
“I think the first reason that we should love our enemies, and I think this was at the very center of Jesus’ thinking, is this: that hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe.”
Hatred produces nothing but an endless cycle of violence. As long as hate is met with further hate, there is never any hope of the cycle of hate and violence coming to an end. The only hope for ending hatred and violence is to break the cycle by injecting love and forgiveness into the cycle.
Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. And that is the tragedy of hate, that it doesn’t cut it off. It only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.
“There’s another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. We usually think of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tragic; it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates.”
King understood that hatred has devastating consequences not only in the violence it does to others, but also for the violence it does to one’s self. Hatred is a consuming power that ruins the life of the one consumed by it.
For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does. You can’t see right. The symbol of objectivity is lost. Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater…Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life. So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.
“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.”
The absence of hate may end the cycle of violence, and it may keep one from destroying one’s self, but there is something even more powerful that results from the act of loving your enemies. Loving your enemies is ultimately for the purpose of redeeming and transforming your enemies. This is where we see how clearly King’s philosophy of love and non-violence was rooted in a much larger story—the story of the cross.
The cross is about God redeeming and transforming the world by acting in love and non-violence towards his enemies. The cross gives definitive meaning to the nature of God (and his love) and the way he relates to his enemies. Romans tells us that “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8) and that “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10). If God acted in hate and in violence toward his enemies, there would be nothing left of the world. The earth and all its inhabitants would simply be destroyed, left only to exist in the memory of a God consumed by hate. But because God is not hate, but love, the earth and its inhabitants have a glorious future in spite of its dark present.
It is a frightening exercise to consider God in light of King’s reasons for loving your enemies. First, if hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe, then imagine if God were hate. The human race would have never lasted this long. If a finite being with a human capacity to focus hatred on only so many people is capable of being consumed and driven mad by hate, then what we would say of a God who is infinite in his divine capacity to recall and consider every human action that has ever occurred. There would be so much hate in that God that it would consume and destroy every thing without any hope for reprieve. This obviously speaks directly to King’s second reason for not hating your enemies—hate distorts the personality of the hater. It doesn’t take much to conclude that if God were hate then not only would everything around him be consumed by his hatred, but also that even God himself would be consumed by his own wrath and fury.
But God is not hate. God is love. His love has the opposite effect—God’s love intensifies the existence of love and goodness in the universe and consumes him so that his love overflows and is directed towards his creation, yes even his enemies!
The hope for the world is that followers of Jesus will be so overcome by the love of God that that very same love will burst forth from them, overflowing and directed towards everyone, yes even their enemies!
Martin Luther King Jr. was a man captured by that love. He understood God’s love in a way that gave shape and meaning to both who he was and to what he did. The church today is in desperate need of men and women who, like King, are captured by that same beautiful understanding of God’s love.
If the church were to truly embrace God as he has revealed himself in Jesus on the cross, it would spark a revolution.