“I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
We so often think of Martin Luther King Jr. as a leader and speaker that we often forget he was a preacher and writer. His wife Coretta said that Strength to Love (1963) was the book, “…that people consistently tell me has changed their lives.” The messages in that work are just as relevant today as they were a half century ago.
His breadth of knowledge is remarkable. One chapter he’s quoting Shakespeare and Keats, the next he’s demonstrating a historical understanding of the great civilizations. One sermon breaks down psychological responses to disappointment, the next features lessons of science and the universe. Logic and philosophy are also woven throughout. King was a Renaissance Man.
As with any work saturated in truth, Strength To Love contains vulnerability as well. He recalls the early days of the movement when he was new to leadership, when the threats could no longer be sloughed off, when fear and doubt crept in. After another threatening call late at night he reached his midnight garden.
“I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward.” He then began to pray aloud over his kitchen table.
“I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
He emerged from that night with a renewed inner calm “ready to face anything.” Three nights later the home he provided for his family was bombed. His faith got him through.
King challenged those around him to become nonconformists with words just as meaningful today.
“In these days of worldwide confusion, there is a dire need for men and women who will courageously do battle for truth…We must make a choice.”
Traveling that road was never supposed to be easy. Imagine your six-year-old daughter asking, “Daddy, why do you have to go to jail so much?” King reminds us that the cross we bear always precedes the crown we wear. He understood the costs of his cause. Following the strategy of Gandhi and living for Jesus made a tragic fate something to be reckoned with.
Our world is still divided although race is no longer the major line of demarcation. Hatred spews in conversations as beliefs and ideas collide. The civility King spoke of is missing. Everyone believes they are right and uses that feeling as a weapon to pummel anyone who disagrees.
In King’s day only one side truly was right on matters of race, the side that fought for ultimate equality. He still invested time telling his followers how they must act during their quest and consistently challenged their shortcomings, from inappropriate responses to internal hypocrisy. Nonviolent movements require intense accountability.
Consider your political and religious affiliations today. Are those around us held to that same accountability? Are we? Hypocrisy is rampant in the circus that is our society. We condemn the opposition for behavior then defend the same acts when our side does the same. King would no doubt wonder why we spend so much time ranting about the speck of dust in our neighbor’s eye when we have a massive plank sticking out of our own.
Race will never again be a factor as it was in the days of Dr. King, but ignorance remains. In fact, our ignorance today is only heightened by the age of information and interconnectedness in which we live. Technology has shrunk the world, and we are global neighbors now. Will we simply point out all of the world’s problems or will we step into the gap like King once did.
A stand like that takes courage as King knew during those midnights of fear. We must attack the situation, he said, faithfully and with the ultimate human ethic: aggressive love. Such a love requires unthinkable altruism, even to the point of going out of our way to help those who hate you. No way that will ever be easy, and such living is certainly not for the weak. In fact, you have got to be able to find strength to love.
We honor the life of Martin Luther King Jr. who preached love, even for his enemies. One of those enemies killed him in the end, but King taught that retaliation would never solve anything. Violence cannot overcome violence; evil will not defeat evil. But “love is the most durable power in the world,” he said in a sermon on loving even those who hate you.
We should make the legacy of King more than a day off each year by finding a way to overcome our differences for a greater good. “One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying,” he wrote in a message called Love In Action.
Martin Luther King Jr. was not a perfect man, but he spoke truth and taught love. Can we do the same? “We must make a choice.”
On April 3, 1968, King went to Memphis, Tennessee to once again lead a non-violent movement against injustice. On the night before he was killed he ended up giving a message that began with him saying in all of history he was glad God had placed him in the time during which he led. He concluded by acknowledging continual threats against him and said it didn’t matter anymore because he had done the work he was made to do. Here is the prescient conclusion to his last message.
Here’s the entire “Mountaintop” speech via Vimeo.
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