Hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you…. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Christmas Sermon for Peace,” Dec 24, 1967
This is my favorite quote by the man whose life we celebrate today. When I reflect on it, two questions come to mind: How can anyone actually live this way? and How can there be any other way to actually live?
On the face of it, this is a crazy thing to say, isn’t it? Forget for a moment that this guy has a holiday named after him. Forget that he’s now almost universally respected and honored. Pretend you’re in his audience, and you live every day under the shadow of hatred, violence, even death, and he’s telling you to defeat your enemies by soaking up their hatred like a sponge, absorbing their blows, and wishing them life even as they plot your doom. He’s telling you that these people who spit on your children have hearts and consciences and deserve to be saved from the consequences of their own evil actions, and that someday, you and your oppressors will celebrate your mutual freedom in a double victory.
I wonder how many people in that room wanted to shout “Yeah, right” instead of “Amen”?
This is what Jesus’s disciples used to call a hard teaching. This is Sermon on the Mount hard. This is “be perfect like your Heavenly Father is perfect” hard. Oh wait, that’s because they’re the same. And delivered in similarly tense and very often violent circumstances, I might add.
I mean, who wants to wear others down by their capacity to suffer? That doesn’t seem like a fun way to spend your day, much less the rest of your life. What if they never learn? What if it doesn’t work? What if it’s all a waste? It feels much more satisfying, appropriate even, to hate your enemies and wish their demise.
We do this every day in the subtlest of ways. We do it on Facebook, when we throw around insults like “baby killers” and “bigots.” We do it in person, when a certain tone of contempt creeps in when we say perfectly normal descriptive words like “Republicans” or “Mormons.” We do it in our minds when we walk past a person on the street inwardly sneering, Put some clothes on, or Get a job, or Why do those people have so many children? We do it when we nurse our hatred toward the ones we’re tied to by blood or years: She’ll never change. Why doesn’t he apologize first?
What we’re really doing when we do that, me and you, is giving a tiny push to the wheel of pain. We’re saying We deserve to win and They deserve to lose, and there’s no such thing as a double victory.
How can it be that, forty years later, we Americans have forgotten the way love can start to change the fabric of an entire society?
How can it be that, two thousand years later, we Christians have forgotten that when Jesus was getting arrested for no reason, not only did he not let his disciples attack his captors, but he actually healed an enemy one of his friends had just wounded? That he calls us to follow him on the peaceful, painful way of the Cross?
I pray we’ll grow into this hard teaching, that it will work its way slowly into our thick skulls. Thank God that God is both loving and patient. As a wise man once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”