Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is a major influence as a leader and as a thinker. His
writing and speeches have had a deep impact on my life and work. He is a towering
figure in mind, a complex man for sure, but certainly worthy of the admiration he
I suppose that is why I get a little frustrated when his eponymous holiday rolls
around, and I see quotes of his splattered all over television and social media
void of context and broken into digestible soundbites.
Consider the often quoted, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do
that Hatred cannot drive out hate, only love can do that". King's work is often
divorced in popular culture from his calling as a preacher. The quote comes from
a sermon that King revised while in prison about the Sermon on the Mount. In larger
context, the passage reads:
Let us move now from the practical how to the theoretical why: Why should we love
our enemies? The first reason is fairly obvious. Returning hate for hate multiplies
hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot
drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred, only
love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness
multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says "Love
your enemies," he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition.
Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies...
or else? The chain reaction of evil - hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars
- must be broken or we shall be plunged into the darkness of the abyss of annihilation.
Here we see dynamic wrestling with the scripture which should inform the ways that
we all read it. We who stand in line with King's faith tradition should be the first
to recognize that King's work was an outgrowth of his faith and that without that
context, he is simply another motivational speaker. King's work for justice was
a byproduct of his faith.
I revisited this sermon, reprinted in a book entitled "The Radical King" edited
by Dr. Cornel West. Dr. West challenges us to move away from the "sanitized" version
of King to discover the prophetic man who changed this country. I would further
challenge us to remember that the radical King is a byproduct of a radical Christ
who challenged the powers of his day while standing on the side of the oppressed.
In this, I hope, that we will find a vision for a radical church that does the same.