Mr. President, on a minus-five degree morning in Vermont, I am calling out to you. Here is what I have learned, here are some things we know. Here is what history tells us. Here is what I have to teach.
One of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous sermons was “Loving Your Enemies,” which he delivered at Dexter Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1957, where he was a young pastor. That sermon was based on his reading of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” in the book of Matthew.
I presume, since the Bible is your favorite book, that you have at least a passing familiarity with the Book of Matthew. Perhaps, however, you are not familiar with King’s interpretation of Jesus’ command:
“…it’s significant that he does not say, “Like your enemy.” Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, ‘Love your enemy.’ This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.”
The most important word—the best word—in this passage is Agape, for it contains the central message, the root, the crucial tenet, the fundamental power. But what does this mean exactly, here and now?
The Ancient Greeks defined it as “the highest form of love, charity; the love of God for man and of man for God. Agape embraces a universal, unconditional love that transcends, that serves regardless of circumstances.”
If ever there was a time for this kind of love, it is now, as you embark on four years of leading the 330,000,000. You must have agape in your soul. And if you do not, then come closer to life, come out from behind your walls and glass towers into honest relations with people and things and work and history. Then you must allow the needs of others to become your needs. You disappear and become an instrument of another power. Then you may begin to understand what agape is
When my son was in 7th grader, he studied the Civil Rights movement, and the Freedom Riders in particular. We took a trip from Vermont to Alabama to visit the the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. On the drive down from Atlanta we stopped in Anniston, where the Freedom Riders had been attacked at a Greyhound station. In Birmingham we walked through the Kelly-Ingram Park where Bull Conner had turned the fire hoses and dogs on marchers and where he had loaded up children into his paddy wagons. We went inside the 16th Street Baptist Church, where the four little girls were killed by 15 sticks of dynamite planted there by four members of the Ku Klux Klan. We looked up to the stained glass windows that had been blown out.
“All but one of the church’s stained-glass windows were destroyed in the explosion,” the Washington Post reported. “The sole stained-glass window largely undamaged in the explosion depicted Christ leading a group of young children.”
We entered the museum, which was a long walk through a tumultuous time in American history. There was a Klan robe in a glass case. There was a wooden placard saying “Whites Only.” There was the carcass of the burned Greyhound bus, it’s door open, the seats and windows blackened with smoke.
Close to the end of our visit we came into a small vestibule where entirety of the “I Have a Dream Speech” played. The walls were papered with grainy images of the marchers in Washington. The reflecting pools stretched into the distance and there was King, in the shadow of Lincoln, who exhorted us to carry malice towards none, and charity to all.
We stood with several others, including two African-American girls, who appeared to be high-school aged. My son and I listened to King, the tremulous voice ascending, the static and applause, and the hope of it. When I glanced at the two girls, both of them were whispering the speech, line by line, word for word, as though the cadence and rhythm and pulse of it emanated from their bodies. The words were so very much still alive.
At the end of his 1957 sermon, King alludes to Napoleon. “Napoleon one day looked back across the years and said, ‘Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have built great empires. But upon what did they depend? They depended upon force. But long ago Jesus started an empire that depended on love.”
An empire of love. Yes, the goodness of our families, our schools, our communities depends on the degree to which we can love each other, stand for each other. The greatness of our nation, perhaps even the survival of our planet, depends not on walls but on, as King preached, our willingness to comprehend Christ’s example: “…we look out into the long vista of eternity, and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power-drunk generation that love is the only way.”
Before my son and I departed the exhibit in Birmingham, we walked to a window that looked down and across to the 16th Street Baptist Church. Here we were suspended in time between the painful and heroic past and the tenuous present. And where did I stand? How much of the past could I let into me to inspire and govern my relations with mankind?
In that moment it was not possible to have hatred in my heart. I only wanted to love the world, to have the voice of brotherhood and sisterhood become my own. The stained glass showed Christ leading the children. My son, a child, was the same age as those girls who died. I wanted my son to love the world. I wanted him to live in a loving world. I wanted him to know a world where four little girls could go to church to sing psalms to heaven and know that the glory of God was upon them.