The practical application of love for one’s enemies formed the basis for Martin Luther King Jr.’s successful philosophy of nonviolent protest.
Multiple times throughout his public ministry, King acknowledged that his philosophy found its genesis in the words of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount, especially the portions found in Matthew 5.
Jesus used multiple parables and teachings in Matthew 5 to explain God’s expectations for anyone who wanted to experience God’s coming kingdom. Membership in God’s kingdom would require them to rethink multiple things about their treasured faith and who could become a part of God’s family.
One of the most shocking things Jesus challenged them to rethink was their understanding of the Ten Commandments. The sixth commandment (“thou shall not kill”) became a valuable object lesson related to God’s understanding of loving enemies.
In the minds of his listeners, if they were at odds with someone, but did not commit the act of murder, then they were okay with God. They believed that if they did not commit acts of physical violence against their enemies, then they were living into God’s wishes for them.
Jesus pushed back against this idea as being too easy. For Jesus, although committing acts of violence against others violated God’s wishes for human relationships, the attitudes that people held towards others was as important as the actions they committed.
Although physical action against someone would lead to a person being held accountable in a court of law, holding the wrong attitude towards others would lead to God passing judgment on the person holding the angry attitudes.
Holding right attitudes towards others was so important to God that Jesus said that a person should not make a sacrifice towards God if they had not already sought to restore broken relationships with others. They must first seek forgiveness and reconciliation from those whom they were estranged.
Reconciliation involves making a personal effort to improve a relationship. It requires acknowledgment that something has gone wrong in the relationship and acknowledging our part in the separation that occurred. It is not about waiting for someone else to be the bigger person or to apologize.
It is not enough to say that something has gone wrong in a relationship. Jesus taught that it was their responsibility, and ours, to start the process of healing what had been broken. Only after seeking reconciliation should a person offer a sacrifice to their Creator.
Jesus told his listeners that God holds us individually responsible for maintaining and improving the relationships we have with others, for fixing misunderstandings that may occur and for changing our perceptions of others.
It is not someone else’s responsibility to make things better. It is ours.
King knew this type of philosophy would be hard to digest by the modern mind. He even knew that Jesus’ radical theology would cause people then, and now, to not want to follow him.
In the sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” King expressed this concern about the human tendency to turn our backs on this type of thinking, even when it is required by God’s son.
King observed that many people would say, “[This] is just additional proof that Jesus was an impractical idealist who never quite came down to earth.”
We see this type of attitude today in contemporary religious leaders and political radicals who only want to follow Jesus when it meets their political and social ideologies.
Yet, King and his contemporaries proved that Jesus’ teachings were not impractical. They may have been inconvenient and hard to follow, but they were not impractical.
Successfully following those teachings was one of the tools that led to many of the achievements of the civil rights movement.
In the sermon, King continued, “[Far] from being an impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist. The words of [Matthew 5] glitter in our eyes with a new urgency. Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command [to love enemies] 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.”
May we follow in King’s footsteps, understanding that radical love is one of the tools that will help save civilization.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2022. The previous article in the series is:
Do We Admire the Dream, or Are We Captured by It? | Ken Sehested
A pastor, author and educator living in St. Louis, Missouri, he is the author of several books, including The Gospel According to Broadway and Taking Apart Bootstrap Theology: Gospel of Generosity and Justice.