Surrendered to Love

How Martin Luther King's vision of life based on a love ethic could heal our wounded world.

Photo by Phil Stanziola

Martin Luther King’s divine calling was to preach. He preached with an artistry, a divinely inspired creativity, that was wondrous to behold. He could call masses of people to hear the word of god; the holy, holy, holy spirit emanating from him was awesome.

King was a prophetic witness. Able to convert listeners, he not only made it possible for them to hear sacred teachings, he invited them to open their hearts and be transformed. One of King’s favorite scriptures, taken from the Book of Romans, admonished believers, telling them: “Be not conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may know what the will of God is.” Prophet, preacher, man of god, seeker on the path of righteousness and right action, King meditated often on this scripture because he sought direct connection with the divine. He knew he was constantly in need of divine guidance. Willing to reflect critically, grow and change, he wanted only to do god’s will.

King was not an original thinker. Passionate about ideas, he was awed by the insights of original thinkers—especially the works of intellectual and/or visionary men of genius. Open-minded, willing to study and learn, King’s personal magic resided in his ability to take complex ideas and break them down bit by bit, placing them in a vernacular form that rendered them accessible to the widest possible audience. Two of the men who most influenced his thinking were Mahatma Gandhi and Erich Fromm.

Challenged by the seemingly miraculous power of Gandhi’s mission to bring about a social revolution that would improve everyone’s chances of living a life of well-being with peace, joy, and healing through nonviolent resistance, King became a prophetic witness for peace. Explaining the influence of Gandhi, King wrote: “I had come to see early that Christian doctrine or love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom.… Nonviolent resistance had emerged as the technique of the movement, while love stood as the regulating ideal. In other words, Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.”

Fromm’s book The Art of Loving provided the intellectual framework for King’s spiritual awareness of love as a divine force uniting all life. Interviewed by Kenneth Clark and asked to talk about a love ethic, King referred to Fromm: “Many of the psychiatrists are telling us now that many of the strange things that can happen in the subconscious and many of the inner conflicts are rooted in hate and so they are now saying ‘love or perish.’ Erich Fromm can write a book like The Art of Loving and make it very clear that love is the supreme unifying principle of life. I’m trying to say in this movement that it is necessary to follow the technique of nonviolence as the most potent weapon available to us, but it is necessary also to follow the love ethic… .” Fromm’s work aided King’s understanding “that the right kind of self-love and the right kind of love of others are interdependent… .”

There were two amazing conversion experiences in King’s life: his transformation into a nonviolent resister and his call for a social revolution of values based on commitment to love as political praxis, a love rooted in spiritual commitment to the divine. In his biography of Francis of Assisi Donald Spoto offers an insightful, complex understanding of the meaning of conversion. Speaking about spiritual transformation, he shares: “Conversion is, then, a response to God, who invites us to a state of complete freedom, away from everything that is hostile to His goodness and mercy. The call Jesus extended to his disciples…was a summons to acknowledge God’s unconditional love of us as individuals; and it was an invitation to proclaim that love to the world by acts of caring, forgiveness, and compassion for others, by refusing to demand one’s prerogatives at the expense of others and by rejecting vengeance and reprisal…Seen in this light, conversion means not only a turning away from one’s past but entrusting oneself to the unexpected, uncharted way into the incalculable future in which God comes to us… .Conversion then becomes a radical and uniquely personal adoption of a new life.”

Any critical study of King’s private life reveals that his decision to oppose the war in Vietnam, his radical stance on nonviolence, was the gesture of surrender to divine will that signaled the depths of his spiritual surrender. It took many days and nights of prayer and soul searching, of King asking himself, “How can I say I worship a God of love and support war?” to transform his consciousness and his actions. Confessing that it was no easy decision to stand against the nation and oppose war, King declared in his historic address, “A Time To Break Silence”: “Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak….”

Because King united theology with working for social change, it has been easy for folks to overlook the extent to which he struggled to accept new ideas, new visions. While the American public is aware that King called us to love one another, relying on biblical scripture, it is essential that we understand the depths of his spiritual devotion, a dedication grounded in his acknowledgement of god’s unconditional love and his awareness that god was calling him to proclaim that love to the world, even at the risk of losing his life. This is why King so often emphasized in his sermons that he had made a choice to love, proclaiming: “I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we are moving against wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who has love has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.”

As early as 1956, speaking to the First Annual Institute on Non-Violence and Social Change, King shared his views on love, explaining them at great length, telling his audience that the “virtues of love, mercy, and forgiveness should stand at the center of our lives.” Stating that “love might well be the salvation of our civilization,” he urged listeners to see love as the force that should shape the nature and outcome of resistance struggle, telling them: “…the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community…. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.” King understood that many unenlightened white folks feared that if black people gained greater power they would violently retaliate against those who had oppressed them; hence his constant insistence that black people love our enemies.

A teenager when Martin Luther King’s courage and charisma rocked this nation and the world, I admired his commitment to anti-racist struggle. However, that commitment did not seem to my adolescent mind as worthy of undue regard. In our white supremacist town, where racial apartheid was the norm, all our leaders preached working for civil rights. All our leaders preached love of one’s enemies. In my teens I was more mesmerized by the political resistance of black power militants. If we had to choose between Malcolm and Martin, my vote was definitely going to be for Malcolm. Yet when I left my small town, entered predominately white communities and colleges, became more involved in activists’ struggles for freedom, I turned to the writings of King for inspiration and wise counsel.

Like many Americans I read King’s slim volume of sermons, Strength to Love, first published in 1969, to give me hope. By then it was evident that King’s vision of transformative politics based on a love ethic was the most constructive way to create positive social change benefiting everyone. Motivated by our belief in a love ethic, masses of Americans worked in the late sixties and early seventies to unlearn the logic of domination and dominator culture. While militant black power struggle certainly helped bring about important social reforms, it also produced a culture of despair because support for violence was a central component of its agenda. King’s insistence on love had provided folk an enduring message of hope. Tragically, he did not live long enough to be an enlightened voice for self-love among black people. Focusing intensely on the project of ending the white racist assault on black people, King did not develop further his thinking about the necessity of self-love. However, in Strength to Love he spoke directly to those advocates of patriarchal imperialist violence, be they white or black, when he stated, “The hardhearted person never truly loves. The hardhearted person lacks the capacity for genuine compassion…. The hardhearted individual never sees people, but rather as mere objects or as impersonal cogs in an ever-turning machine….  He depersonalizes life.”

Aware of the need to end domination globally, King cautioned: “In an effort to achieve freedom in America, Asia, and Africa we must not try to leap from a position of disadvantage to one of advantage, thus subverting justice. We must seek democracy and not the substitution of one tyranny for another…God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men, and brown men, and yellow men; God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race.” King’s vision of redemptive love held the promise that both oppressor and oppressed could recover from the wounds of dehumanization.

Just as I turned to King’s writing in my early twenties to renew my spirit, more than twenty years later I returned to this work as I experienced renewed spiritual awakening, an ever-growing awareness of the transformative power of love. As I studied and wrote about ending domination in all its forms, it became clearer and clearer that a politics rooted in a love ethic produced lasting, meaningful social change. When I traveled the nation asking folk what enabled them to be courageous in struggling for freedom, whether working to end domination of race, gender, sexuality, class or religion, the response was love.

All over the world people working for peace and justice evoke King’s vision of a beloved community, where people committed to nonviolence can create a new social order based on justice and love. This was King’s prophetic vision. In    Jim Wallis reminds readers that “the prophetic vocation is to challenge the old while announcing the new…. The Biblical prophets always had a two-fold task. First they were to be bold in telling the truth and proclaiming the justice that is rooted in God…. But in addition to truth telling, the prophets had a second task. They held up an alternative vision, they helped the people to imagine new possibilities.”

King’s vision of living our lives based on a love ethic is the philosophy of being and becoming that could heal our world today. A prophetic witness for peace, an apostle of love, Martin Luther King has given us the map. His blood lights the way leading to the truth that love in action is the spiritual path that liberates.

Photo by Phil Stanziola