On this day we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. May we be challenged to hear his faithful message anew. The media will focus on how racial bias still exists, but few will focus on the importance of his faith in shaping his message and his hope for America. What was his power source? It was the rock-solid inner strength that comes from faith and grounding in God.
In our increasingly secular society, the tributes to King focus on his use of peaceful marches, his calls for tolerance, and his impact on the Civil Rights Movement. But you will not hear the name of Jesus or his faith even uttered. King was a Baptist minister; his collections of sermons are inspiring. Martin didn’t just march; he walked his faith. It gave him the power to love and eventually influence his “enemies.” In this time of division and animosity, we would be wise to once again learn from his nonviolent protests and his heartfelt witness to the power of his Christian faith in changing a culture.
Martin Luther King expected believers to make a difference: “The church… is not the master or servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.” He rejected violent demonstrations.
No doubt Martin would have echoed the statement of Confucius: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” He knew the power of love over revenge: “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
He would live out the unsettling words of Jesus: “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. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long.”
Outside of the politicians in Washington and the extremists shouting at each other from our TV screens, most Americans are tired of people fueling what divides us. Whether it is impeaching a past president no longer in office, kicking people off or defriending people on social media, or turning protests into rioting, living with perpetual anger exacts a heavy cost on our shared community. Loving one’s enemies might be the radical act we need to embrace.
Martin was a realist, "Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude.” Nothing tried once works. If you take a chance to bridge a divide, enemies often assume you’re up to something. Trust only comes from a history of loving actions over and over again. Care enough to take the lead whether your “enemies” reciprocate or not.
King continued: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend…. But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men."
As we eventually find our “new normal” after COVID is tamed and a new administration finds its footing, if the dangerous divide remains volatile, we need something far beyond “normal.” Love is abnormal. It changes the hearts of men. For Martin and those who marched with him, it changed the hearts of enough people to launch a civil rights movement that keeps challenging us even today.
From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he envisioned a future: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Would Martin Luther King, Jr.’s faith embrace the identity politics of our age that divides us into factions of Americans vying for special treatment and programs to right past wrongs? Would he support reparations for the past of slavery? Would he want a president to provide stimulus money to small businesses based not on need but on the race of the small-business owner receiving it? Or would he want us to live out E Pluribus Unum—out of many one? Can we still dream of being one people committed to opportunity and freedom for all?
Prayerfully answer that question. It’s clear that Martin wanted to change America into a color-blind society. We have made progress, and there will always be more to do. But Martin Luther King would be the first to remind us that God loves ALL His children, and it is our job to do the same.
If you were ever put on trial for your faith, would there be enough evidence of your love that they would convict you? There was for Martin. He paid the ultimate price for his radical love.
On the night before his assassination, King said: “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land… So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”
Faith is not required to do good, but to many Americans of many different faiths, God is the source of their strength and purpose. As Americans, may we never forget the men and women like Martin Luther King Jr. who put their faith into action for the benefit of us all!
It’s easy to love people we agree with. May God help us love and pray for our enemies. May God once again call us to community and dialogue across our divide. May God lead us into forgiveness instead of a never-ending cycle of getting even.
To love doesn’t force us to agree or to lay down our cause, but love does cause us to disagree without being anywhere near as disagreeable as we have been. Can God’s love make a difference? May we claim the words of St. Paul to the believers in Rome: “If God be for us, who can be against us?”
Terry Paulson is a Ph.D. psychologist, author, and professional speaker on Earned Optimism, Making Change Work, Claiming Your American Dream, and Becoming a Conservative Values Voter. Contact him to speak before your group at email@example.com.