On Monday, we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Few people in recent history have challenged such painful and seemingly intractable injustice and captured the imagination of a whole culture with a dream of an alternative future. In the face of unbelievable hatred, opposition and violence, he never gave up on love. He was able to vehemently oppose the forces of racism and all manner of injustice, and still hold out hope for a future of healing and inclusion for “all of God’s children.” Only love could do that.
Dr. King followed in the tradition of Jesus, who lived and taught that nothing other than radical, sacrificial love could heal the human condition at the deepest level. In my last blog post, I discussed Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). Through this story, Jesus opens us up to just how challenging love is. This is a parable about not being self-righteous, and not judging the other. But while agreeing with Jesus, we still readily judge the Pharisee (for being self-righteous) and in doing so, judge ourselves because we have thereby become the Pharisee! Jesus taught that real love lets go of judgement of the other.
I don’t think for one minute this means we shouldn’t have an opinion, disagree, or speak out. Jesus is not saying don’t work vigorously and tirelessly against injustice. Or that all political systems, opinions and decisions are morally equivalent—so love means accepting everything. Clearly that is not the case!
But what Jesus does seem to say is that if we want real healing of the human condition, if we want healing of society at the deepest level, then only love can do that. For Jesus, judging means an attitude of heart that sees itself as separate from the other, that condemns the other and sees itself as superior. It fails to see that we are all part of broken humanity, and the deepest healing and the greatest freedom come only when we include even our enemies in the struggle for reconciliation.
At one level this seems terribly unfair. To take the log out of our own eye, when it feels like a speck compared to the plank in our enemy’s eye, seems unjust. An “eye for an eye” sounds equitable and somewhat satisfying, but it only perpetuates the cycle of revenge and violence. “Treat others as you’d like them to treat you” breaks the cycle. Loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, and overcoming evil with good are ways to initiate love where love seemed impossible. Loving our neighbors as ourselves (rather than as other and separate from ourselves) means seeing that we are “all God’s children,” and dares to dream of a future of freedom for everyone.
Jesus described this way of love as the Kingdom of God: a new consciousness, a new way of being, a new way of living. When John the Baptist announces the coming of Jesus in Luke 3, he speaks in graphic, extreme, almost apocalyptic terms about how “the axe is laid to the root of the tree.” In other words, Jesus is not going to patch things up. Jesus is not just going to impose a better political system or a better religion from above. Rather Jesus will go right to the heart, right to the core of our humanity to bring about complete healing. Only love can do that—and that’s why Jesus constantly challenged his followers so uncompromisingly that nothing but love would do.
There is great sacrifice in this love. It might get you manipulated, misunderstood or misinterpreted. And it can also get you beaten on a bridge, shot on a balcony—crucified even. And to go this deeply into the human condition takes time. For all the immense work, energy and ultimate sacrifice, King saw only relatively small gains in his own lifetime. He himself seemed aware that he would not live to see his dream, but this kind of love transcends the individual and embraces the whole story of humanity. The life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenges us to never give up on love. As followers of Jesus, like him, we should courageously struggle for social justice, no matter what the cost. And, like him, love should be the very heart of the struggle, because nothing but love will do.