Sunday, January 15, 2012

Transformational Love and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I do hope that everyone will breathe a prayer of gratitude to God
this weekend for gracing our planet with Dr. Martin Luther King." 
~Tweeted by Bill Hybels, 13 January 2012

In 2007 I was invited to write the following essay on Martin Luther King, Jr's. words from his "Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience" and an application to the current day issue of immigration that was published  at Non-violent Migration, a blog that explored the principles of nonviolence and social change with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. Many of Dr. Kings words, speeches and writings are harder hitting than the MLK quotations that are repeated every January.  I am reprinting my essay here as a tribute to the 2012 MLK Holiday. I invite you to interact about your own role in making the world a better place.

. . . we come together to work toward a better world of equality and justice. This . . . essay is a response to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. submitted as part of a group effort to have a conversation about using nonviolent principles to bring human rights to migrant populations.

In 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the annual meeting of The Fellowship of the Concerned with a speech about “Law, Love, and Civil Disobedience.” This was addressed to an interracial group of professional people who may have been discouraged because of a lack of progress and the violence that faced some who would carry their civil rights ideals forward. The problem, as described by Dr. King, is resistance in the south to the Supreme Court ruling (1954) that outlawed segregation. This has been met with counter resistance and civil disobedience of local ordinance from the student movement to move desegregation forward. This struggle needed to continue then. It needs to continue today. It is a struggle, as those who have privileges will not surrender them voluntarily. This is true today as it was in 1961.

The question to be answered by King in this speech is—how will the struggle be waged? The answer is profound. Everyone is transformed in the process—the oppressed and the oppressors. No one remains the same. God’s agape love is the catalyst.

Historically, the two most common ways to deal with the problem is either to surrender or to rise up with counter violence. King proposes a third way. It is the way of non-violent resistance. This approach was not intuitive or easily understood. King took a principled approach and worked hard to build a movement on those principles.

King is aware that the struggle is against an unjust system not against people. He says:

“There is something else: that one seeks to defeat the unjust system, rather than individuals who are caught in that system. And that one goes on believing that somehow this is the important thing, to get rid of the evil system and not the individual who happens to be misguided, who happens to be misled, who was taught wrong. The thing to do is to get rid of the system and thereby create a moral balance with society.”

Some of my learning about the civil rights struggles and the evils that were fought has been through movies. For some readers here, most was learned through books and the telling of stories in film. Cinema has a way of vilifying people by creating suitably hateable characters. This makes movies that sell tickets.

In the real world, identifying individuals who personify evil may merely be a distraction. There are plenty from whom to choose. Insert the name of the one you love to hate. Everywhere one turns on the Internet there are bloggers, and commenters, newscasters and talking heads, who are bashing someone to objectify the antithesis of their point-of-view. We need to focus on changing the systems. Changing people’s minds and hearts will lead to transformed culture and changed systems. Use God’s agape love to love the people we do not like. Until we change the system that supports injustice, the injustice will continue to oppress the weak. Focus on what is important. For Dr. King it was the segregated South. Today, it is the failed immigration system, unjust exploitation of immigrant labor, and international policies that devastate foreign economies.

That some laws are just and others are unjust, and that people have the capacity to understand the difference is essential to the founding of our county and the Christian faith’s pulpit from which Dr. King preached. King says:

“ . . . A just law is a law that squares with a moral law, it is a law that squares with that which is right, so that any law that uplifts human personality is a just law. . . . An unjust law is a code that the majority inflicts on the minority that is not binding on itself. . . .An unjust law is a code which the majority inflicts upon the minority, which that minority had no part in enacting or creating. . . .Individuals who stand up on the basis of civil disobedience realize that they are following something that says that there are just laws and there are unjust laws.”

Thomas Jefferson and the other signers of the US Declaration of Independence, carried it even further saying,

“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . . But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

In the Christian faith tradition, there are biblical directives to both obey the civil authorities, and, when contradictory to God’s laws, to reject them. The Christian Bible says that civil authorities have the responsibility to ensure that people can live peaceful, quiet lives (2 Timothy 2:2) and to govern rightly and ensure order (Romans 13). When faced with a choice to obey God or the law, the Apostle Peter declares that they will obey God and disobey the civil and religious laws of men (Acts 5:29). In the biblical narrative, there are times when the government is clearly in the wrong and described as a dragon or a beast causing death and destruction (Revelation 13).


When we choose to engage in civil disobedience, we must be explicit about the meaning of any such activity. Without explicit, carefully written and spoken words to explain what this action means, we may be wasting our precious resources. I do not believe that some of the recent actions that I have been aware of have been carefully planned and explicitly interpreted by the initiators. When words come, it seems to be an after thought. This is not only because it is being drowned out by louder voices of opposition, but also that may be part of the reason.

Recently the local NPR affiliate radio station here did a story on some arrests of protesters at a federal detention facility downtown. The reporter who covered the action seems to be a progressive and enlightened about what the basic issues are. But there was no articulation of how these arrests where directed at anything going on within the detention facilities, which I assume houses people picked up in ICE raids awaiting hearing or not and departure from the USA. There was nothing available on the website of the organization whose representative was quoted by the reporter. The representative called the action civil disobedience as the arrests were anticipated. But nothing beyond that was offered. Let’s not undervalue the importance of adding meaning with explicit descriptions of how the actions are to be interpreted.  I wrote about this here and here.


I am not always hopeful. Sometimes I am near despair. There is so much injustice that remains. The opposing voices are so loud, disturbing, ubiquitous. I borrow hope from the words of Dr. King: “This movement is a movement based on faith in the future. It is a movement based on a philosophy, the possibility of the future bringing into being something real and meaningful. It is a movement based on hope.” I mentioned this to someone recently and he reminded me that Dr. King caught a bullet. Little has changed, he said.  I know that.

King reminds us “. . .that [the] students [of his day] had faith in the future. That the movement was based on hope, that this movement had something within it that says somehow even though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice. And I think this should be a challenge to all others who are struggling to transform the dangling discords of our Southland into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” Today the discords of our Southland are on our southern border. The symphony may be made up of mariachis.

Dr. King was able to say this when his home had been bombed and churches were bombed. And people died. It is not be easy, but there is hope. Changing people’s hearts will change systems; changing systems changes the future.


Note: for an easy to understand and compelling description of the different kinds of love to which Dr. King alludes: storge (affection), phileo (friendship), eros (romantic love), and agape (charity or God-love) see C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (1960).

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