For Martin Luther King, Jr. the issue of Civil Rights was as Biblical as it was Constitutional. King’s words – in his speeches and writings – make abundantly clear that his social activism was inseparable from his Christian faith. Strength to Love is a collection of sermons by King. In the book’s various essays, most of which begin with a Bible verse, King quotes the poetic words of Old Testament prophets and draws from the parables of Jesus to illustrate his message of social justice.
The Supreme Court decision overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine, King equated with the parting of the waters that cleared a path for the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery. The South’s obstinate refusal to release its Jim Crow hold over African Americans, King equated with the pharaoh’s unwillingness to grant the Jews their freedom. Coming to the aid of anyone whose beaten down and oppressed no matter who they are or what religion, nationality or color they might be – King likened to the Good Samaritan who aided the Jewish man, left robbed and beaten by the roadside.
Strength to Love was published in 1963 – the same year King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Washington Mall. Fifty years later King and his message of racial equality have been validated by history. Conservatives even laude him, but if King were still alive, people on the right would be calling him un-American, a socialist and communist, just as they were 50 years ago.
The views he expressed from the stage and church pulpit were controversial in the 1960s and still are today. In this series of sermons, as well as other writings and speeches, King speaks out against war, imperialism and capitalist exploitation of labor. Today -- in an age when Christianity appears locked and limited to rigid conservatism, a political party, exclusion,” American exceptionalism” and a belief that the “invisible hand” of capitalism is from God -- it’s refreshing to visit King’s progressive, liberating and expansive interpretation of Christian love.
King did not yield his Christian belief to the chauvinistic view that America is blessed above all other nations. He would never have joined the clergymen who urged Pres. George W. Bush -- by letter -- to go to war with Iraq. A full year before the Gulf of Tonkin incident even sparked the Vietnam War, King was advocating for peace. He was critical of the military industrial complex and nuclear proliferation. In the Cold War era, as in today, anyone not beating the drum for war is branded “treasonous,” and said to be “aiding and abetting the enemy.” King faced that kind of backlash, but he called for cooled, reasoned minds -- something we’re still desperately in need of today. The following quote sounds sadly appropriate in our time.
“Let us not join those who shout war and who through their misguided passions urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days when Christians must evince wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not call everyone a Communist or appeaser who recognizes that hate and hysteria are not the final answers...”
King was a citizen of the world. Drawing on Christ’s words – Love thy neighbor as thyself – he considered anyone in the global community who was suffering to be a neighbor in need of help. The plight of people living under colonial domination in Asia and Africa, in his mind, mirrored the oppression African Americans suffered under slavery and segregation.
"Were he alive today, King wouldn’t be fighting the “Culture Wars.” For the past thirty-some years, the Religious Right has been finding evil in the entertainment industry. King saw evil in the exploitation of others, in depriving people of their human dignity. Christian conservatives home in on legalistic Biblical passages – ambiguous and open to interpretation – and stick them to peoples’ sex lives. King’s focus was on the spirit – the redemptive power of love and compassion spoken of in the scriptures.
What passes for mainstream Christianity today is small-minded and pitifully anti-intellectual. King demonstrates through these sermons, a thinking person’s Christianity. That’s evident from the first page of the book when he links a Bible verse to Hegelian philosophy.
Throughout these writings, King shows himself to be highly educated (he had a doctorate) and diverse in his reading. He shows the influence of everyone from 19th century evangelical abolitionist William Wilberforce to Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. In one of his sermons, he uses the word, “soulforce,” a term lifted from Gandhi. In another, he refers to “I-and-thou” relationships, a concept originated by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. He spoke of the Muslim-Hindu fighting that shattered Gandhi’s dream of peace in India. Clearly, King’s sense of integration stretched far beyond skin color and it’s a sure bet that he wouldn’t be jumping on the Islamaphobia plaguing America today.
One of the chapters in Strength to Love is entitled “Shattered Dreams.” He had a lot of dreams that didn’t come true – dreams that went far and above the passage of Civil Rights legislation. It’s left to the living to advance King’s work and bring those dreams to reality. King was a flawed individual. He wasn’t a saint and should not be seen as such, but his tireless activism and vision were bigger than he was.
For anyone wanting to understand King beyond the basic historical facts, Strength to Love would be a superb introduction. The book reveals the thoughts and influences that motivated King to persevere through endless marches and protests without surrender.
Anyone desiring to have their spiritual, intellectual or social consciences invigorated would benefit from reading Strength to Love. It’s not important that one shares King’s religion or even agrees with him on everything to get something from the book. His humanitarian principles were universal.