Those who work toward racial justice in America do so against the complex backdrop of three cultural realities:
- The encouraging awakening of many around the world to the need for racial justice and to the work of cultivating it in their communities.
- The exhausting retrenchment of ecclesial and political leaders against the work of racial justice and a commitment to demonize those engaged in it as either unAmerican or unChristian.
- The increasing ambivalence regarding the moral foundation of this work, especially as it relates to Martin Luther King and his call to a movement anchored in and accountable to love. This movement bears particular reflection on this MLK day.
The ambivalence about love is not new to the work of racial justice. Indeed, the wisdom of a movement of love has been the occasion of serious public debate throughout American history: in enslaved communities considering rebellion, in abolitionist movements seeking emancipation, in post-Reconstruction movements responding to Jim Crow, and—perhaps most powerfully—in the latter years of the King era in the Civil Rights Movement, especially 1966-1968.
King’s detractors, both then and now, are not to be dismissed. The language of love—especially in the mouths of the powerful—often functions as a barely concealed attempt to maintain the status quo by means of moral censure; an attempt to suffocate social change under the weight of self-serving sanctimony. Tragically, we can see throughout history this wicked deployment of moral language in the service of an immoral social order. Indeed, it can be seen now. Because of this, King’s detractors are right to raise questions about whether the language of love is, in the end, counterproductive to the work of justice.
Even so, this dismissal, while rightly guarding against the mis-uses of love, is nonetheless rooted in a reductive misconception of what King meant by love and how he believed love could serve—indeed must serve—as the foundation of any true movement toward racial justice.
What then, did King mean by love and what might it mean to, in his words, “stick with love” in our own time?
First, it means Seeing with the Eyes of Love. King calls us to see ourselves, our neighbors, and yes, even our enemies, as creatures made both by and for love. This means seeing one another as bearers of an ineradicable glory, a glory that demands both honor and protection. It means seeing one another’s pain, wounds that mark every dimension of our lives and bespeak both spiritual affliction and systemic assault. It means seeing one another’s possibility, refusing to reduce one another to our worst selves or consign one another to our bleakest eventuality, but—in the way of love—to hope all things. And “sticking with love” means deliberately cultivating this way of seeing as the foundational element of a renewed social order.
Second, it means Taking up the Works of Love. It is critical to understand that King was not only committed to seeing deep structural change in America (which he incontrovertibly was) but also to seeing those structures changed in a way consistent with the demands of Christian love. For King—as for those who follow him—this means not only a relentless commitment to push forward in the work of racial justice, but to do so in a way that pulls back from the temptation to transgress the obligations of agape.
Third, it means Embracing the Sufferings of Love. Because of the dramatic nature of King’s life, it is tempting to see his suffering as singular, as uniquely his own. And in a very important sense this is true. But it is also true that King viewed his suffering not as novel but as normal; that he expected this suffering not only for himself but for everyone who walks in the ways of love. He knew that seeing others with the eyes of love did not mean that one would be seen in the same way. He knew that taking up the works of love for others did not mean that those same works would be taken up in return. He knew that, as he put it in his final speech, there were always “some difficult days ahead.” He knew, in other words, that call to love our neighbors inevitably entailed the renunciation of ourselves.
Lastly, and this is perhaps most critically, it means Seeking the Realization of Love. The simple fact of the matter is that for Martin Luther King, from the beginning of his ministry until its tragic end, the ultimate goal of the movement for racial justice was not only the attainment of freedom and equality but also the creation of Beloved Community. That is, even as he relentlessly pushed the nation toward racial equality, he did so with the ultimate aim of creating a society in which all human beings might live together in fellowship. He was not naive about the obstacles to this fellowship, of course, but he was nonetheless committed to it, and unwaveringly so.
In the last speech that King gave to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a speech given during a period in which the future of the movement was in question, he told his hearers that he had “decided to stick with love.” This commitment, made just months before his death and in what was arguably the loneliest and most painful period in his life, deserves serious consideration by all who take up the work of racial justice in our own time. For while, as King well knew, it is true that wounds can be inflicted in the name of love, it is also true that we can never fully heal without it.