Reflections on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hope, and the Challenges of 2020

When we commemorate Dr. King, who died in 1968, over 50 years ago, I think it’s good to think about how his message might resonate today. First, I’m not sure that there is a spiritual leader in the US who promotes the view of meeting hate with love in quite the same way. For me the challenge of religious institutions, in the US, in 2020 is to stand apart from the partisan atmosphere of lies, hate, vitriol and fear-promotion in the seeking of worldly power, and instead be a safe place for love and truth to thrive. As Dr. King says “we must never struggle with falsehood, hate, or malice.” What is key that we “meet physical force with soul force.” King, of course, as a Christian leader, places hope within a Christian context. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for fewer people to be religious or spiritual, as time goes on, but I do think there’s a risk when that perspective causes people to lose hope for the future. People recognized despair as Not A Good Thing, long before there was even the science of psychology. There can also be a certain apocalypticism within the climate change and Extinction Rebellion activist communities that can act to promote fear, hatred and despair. Dr. King didn’t need models to predict future bad things- he lived every day with bad things- and still he had, and preached hope.

Here are some quotes from King’s “Give Us the Ballot” speech.

I cannot close without stressing the urgent need for strong, courageous and intelligent leadership from the Negro community. We need a leadership that is calm and yet positive. This is no day for the rabble-rouser, whether he be Negro or white. (All right) We must realize that we are grappling with the most weighty social problem of this nation, and in grappling with such a complex problem there is no place for misguided emotionalism. (All right, That’s right)

We must work passionately and unrelentingly for the goal of freedom, but we must be sure that our hands are clean in the struggle. We must never struggle with falsehood, hate, or malice. We must never become bitter. I know how we feel sometime. There is the danger that those of us who have been forced so long to stand amid the tragic midnight of oppression—those of us who have been trampled over, those of us who have been kicked about—there is the danger that we will become bitter. But if we will become bitter and indulge in hate campaigns, the new order
which is emerging will be nothing but a duplication of the old order. (Yeah, That’s all right) We must meet hate with love. We must meet physical force with soul force. (Yeah) There is still a voice crying out through the vista of time, saying: “Love your enemies (Yeah), bless them that curse you (Yes), pray for them that despitefully use you.” (That’s right. All right) Then, and only then, can you matriculate into the university of eternal life. That same voice cries out in terms lifted to cosmic proportions: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.”

(Yes, Lord) And history is replete with the bleached bones of nations (Yeah) that failed to follow this command. (All right) We must follow nonviolence and love. (Yes, Lord)
Now, I’m not talking about a sentimental, shallow kind of love. (Go ahead) I’m not talking about eros, which is a sort of aesthetic, romantic love. I’m not even talking about philia, which is a sort of intimate affection between personal friends. But I’m talking about agape. (Yes sir) I’m talking about the love of God in the hearts of men. (Yes) I’m talking
about a type of love which will cause you to love the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. (Go ahead) We’ve got to love. (Oh yes)

There is something in this universe (Yes, Yes) which justifies Carlyle in saying: “No lie can live forever.” (All right) There is something in this universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” (Yes. All right) There is something in this universe (Watch yourself) which justifies James Russell Lowell in saying:
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne. (Oh yeah)
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown
Stands God (All right), within the shadow,
Keeping watch above His own. (Yeah, yes)

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hope, and the Challenges of 2020”

  1. On MLK day I usually ignore all the speechifying and photo ops and enjoy the decrease in traffic as schools and state institutions are closed. I also try to read one of King’s maybe less known speeches or writings as they are well written and usually contain a timeliness applicable to many situations today.

    This year it was Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence, which might well apply to today’s adventurism in foreign policy or even the hate we seem to dredge up with which to view opposing sides in today’s politics. King’s message of love, a word he uses often, might seem quaint or anachronistic amongst today’s many warring tribes, but it’s not. King was dealing with greater antipathies than many of the issues we now face entail. A good day and a great man from which to draw inspiration.


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