Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
, 17 November 1957
This work is in the public domain
I am forced to preach under something of a handicap this morning. In fact,
I had the doctor before coming to church. And he said that it would be
best for me to stay in the bed this morning. And I insisted that I would
have to come to preach. So he allowed me to come out with one stipulation,
and that is that I would not come in the pulpit until time to preach, and
that after, that I would immediately go back home and get in the bed.
So I'm going to try to follow his instructions from that point on.
I want to use as a subject from which to preach this morning a very
familiar subject, and it is familiar to you because I have preached from
this subject twice before to my knowing in this pulpit. I try to make it
a, something of a custom or tradition to preach from this passage of
Scripture at least once a year, adding new insights that I develop
along the way out of new experiences as I give these messages. Although
the content is, the basic content is the same, new insights and new
experiences naturally make for new illustrations.
So I want to turn your attention to this subject: "Loving Your Enemies."
It's so basic to me because it is a part of my basic philosophical and
theological orientation - the whole idea of love, the whole
philosophy of love. In the fifth chapter of the gospel as recorded by
Saint Matthew, we
read these very arresting words flowing from the lips of our Lord and
Master: "Ye have heard that it has been said, `Thou shall love thy
neighbor, and hate thine enemy.' But I say unto you, Love your enemies,
bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for
them that despitefully use you; that ye may be the children of your Father
which is in heaven."
Certainly these are great words, words lifted to cosmic proportions. And
over the centuries, many persons have argued that this is an extremely
difficult command. Many would go so far as to say that it just isn't
possible to move out into the actual practice of this glorious command.
They would go on to say that this is just additional proof that Jesus
was an impractical idealist who never quite came down to earth. So the
arguments abound. But far from being an impractical idealist, Jesus has
become the practical realist. The words of this text glitter in our eyes
with a new urgency. Far from being the pious injunction of a
utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival
of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our
civilization, love even for enemies.
Now let me hasten to say that Jesus was very serious when he gave this
command; he wasn't playing. He realized that it's hard to love your
enemies. He realized that it's difficult to love those persons who seek
to defeat you, those persons who say evil things about you. He realized
that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard. But he wasn't playing. And
we cannot dismiss this passage as just another example of
Oriental hyperbole, just a sort of exaggeration to get over the point.
This is a basic philosophy of all that we hear coming from the lips of
our Master. Because Jesus wasn't playing; because he was serious. We have
the Christian and moral responsibility to seek to discover the meaning
of these words, and to discover how we can live out this command, and
why we should live by this command.
Now first let us deal with this question, which is the practical question:
How do you go about loving your enemies? I think the first thing is this:
In order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing self.
And I'm sure that seems strange to you, that I start out telling you
this morning that you love your enemies by beginning with a look at self.
It seems to me that that is the first and foremost way to come to an
adequate discovery to the how of this situation.
Now, I'm aware of the fact that some people will not like you, not
because of something you have done to them, but they just won't like you.
I'm quite aware of that. Some people aren't going to like the way you
walk; some people aren't going to like the way you talk. Some people
aren't going to like you because you can do your job better than they can
do theirs. Some people aren't going to like you because other people
like you, and because you're popular, and because you're well-liked,
they aren't going to like you. Some people aren't going to like you
because your hair is a little shorter than theirs or your hair is a
little longer than theirs. Some people aren't going to like you because
your skin is a little brighter than theirs; and others aren't going to
like you because your skin is a little darker than theirs.
So that some people aren't going to like you. They're going to dislike you,
not because of something that you've done to them, but because of
various jealous reactions and other reactions that are so prevalent in
But after looking at these things and admitting these things, we must
face the fact that an individual might dislike us because of something
that we've done deep down in the past, some personality attribute that we
possess, something that we've done deep down in the past and we've
forgotten about it; but it was that something that aroused the hate
response within the individual. That is why I say, begin with yourself. There
might be something within you that arouses the tragic hate response in
the other individual.
This is true in our international struggle. We look at the struggle,
the ideological struggle between communism on the one hand and
democracy on the other, and we see the struggle between
America and Russia. Now certainly, we can never give our allegiance to
the Russian way of life, to the communistic way of life, because communism
is based on an ethical relativism and a metaphysical materialism
that no Christian can accept. When we look at the methods of communism,
a philosophy where somehow the end justifies the means, we cannot accept
that because we believe as Christians that the end is pre-existent in the
means. But in spite of all of the weaknesses and evils inherent in
communism, we must at the same time see the weaknesses and evils within
Democracy is the greatest form of government to my mind that man has
ever conceived, but the weakness is that we have never touched it. Isn't
it true that we have often taken necessities from the masses to give
luxuries to the classes? Isn't it true that we have often in our
democracy trampled over individuals and races with the iron feet of
oppression? Isn't it true that through our Western powers we have
perpetuated colonialism and imperialism? And all of these things must be
taken under consideration as we look at Russia. We must face the fact
that the rhythmic beat of the deep rumblings of discontent from
Asia and Africa is at bottom a revolt against the imperialism and
colonialism perpetuated by Western civilization all these many years.
The success of communism in the world today is due to the
failure of democracy to live up to the noble ideals and principles
inherent in its system.
And this is what Jesus means when he said: "How is it that you can see
the mote in your brother's eye and not see the beam in your own eye?"
Or to put it in Moffatt's translation: "How is it that you see the
splinter in your brother's eye and fail to see the plank in your own
eye?" And this is one of the tragedies of human nature. So we begin to
love our enemies and love those persons that hate us whether in
collective life or individual life by looking at ourselves.
A second thing that an individual must do in seeking to love his enemy
is to discover the element of good in his enemy, and everytime you begin
to hate that person and think of hating that person, realize that there
is some good there and look at those good points which will over-balance
the bad points.
I've said to you on many occasions that each of us is something of a
schizophrenic personality. We're split up and divided against
ourselves. And there is something of a civil war going on within all
of our lives. There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting
against the North of our soul. And there is this continual struggle
within the very structure of every individual life. There is something
within all of us that causes us to cry out with Ovid, the Latin poet,
"I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do."
There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with Plato
that the human personality is like a charioteer with two headstrong
horses, each wanting to go in different directions. There is something
within each of us that causes us to cry out with Goethe, "There is enough
stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rogue." There is something
within each of us that causes us to cry out with Apostle Paul,
"I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do."
So somehow the "isness" of our present nature is out of
harmony with the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts
us. And this simply means this: That within the best of us, there is
some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we
come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals.
The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that
hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has
some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the
face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls
"the image of God," you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what
he does, you see God's image there. There is an element of goodness
that he can never sluff off. Discover the element of good in your
enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and
place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.
Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity
presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which
you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the
person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the
person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false
rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an
opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a
recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person
to make some move in life. That's the time you must not do it. That
is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this
sentimental something that we talk about. It's not merely an emotional
something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men.
It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level
of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil
systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love,
but you seek to defeat the system.
The Greek language, as I've said so often before, is very powerful at
this point. It comes to our aid beautifully in giving us the real meaning
and depth of the whole philosophy of love. And I think it is quite apropos
at this point, for you see the Greek language has three words for love,
interestingly enough. It talks about love as eros.
That's one word for love. Eros is a sort of, aesthetic love.
Plato talks about it a great deal in his dialogues, a sort of
yearning of the soul for the realm of the gods. And it's come to us to be
a sort of romantic love, though it's a beautiful love. Everybody has
experienced eros in all of its beauty when you find some individual
that is attractive to you and that you pour out all of your like and your
love on that individual. That is eros, you see, and it's a
powerful, beautiful love that is given to us through all of the beauty of
literature; we read about it.
Then the Greek language talks about philia, and that's another
type of love that's also beautiful. It is a sort of intimate affection
between personal friends. And this is the type of love that you have
for those persons that you're friendly with, your intimate friends, or
people that you call on the telephone and you go by to have dinner
with, and your roommate in college and that type of thing. It's a sort of
reciprocal love. On this level, you like a person because that person
likes you. You love on this level, because you are loved. You love on this
level, because there's something about the person you love that is
likeable to you. This too is a beautiful love. You can communicate with a
person; you have certain things in common; you like to do
things together. This is philia.
The Greek language comes out with another word for love. It is the word
And agape is more than eros; agape is more than
philia; agape is something of the understanding, creative,
redemptive goodwill for all men. It is a love that seeks nothing in return.
It is an overflowing love; it's what theologians would call the
love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on
this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but
because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because
you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you've ever seen.
And this is what Jesus means, I think, in this very passage when he says,
"Love your enemy." And 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.
Now for the few moments left, let us move from the practical how to the
theoretical why. It's not only necessary to know how to go about loving
your enemies, but also to go down into the question of why we should love
our enemies. I think the first reason that we should love our enemies,
and I think this was at the very center of Jesus' thinking, is this:
that hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in
the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit
me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum.
*tapping on pulpit* It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must
have a little sense, and that's the strong person. The strong
person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil.
And that is the tragedy of hate, that it doesn't cut it off.
It only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe.
Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to
cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that
strong and powerful element of love.
I think I mentioned before that sometime ago my brother and I were
driving one evening to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta.
He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very
discourteous that night. They didn't dim their lights; hardly any
driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly,
my brother A. D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: "I know what
I'm going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim
the lights, I'm going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of
their power." And I looked at him right quick and said: "Oh no, don't do
that. There'd be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in
mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this
Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights, and that is the
trouble, isn't it? That as all of the civilizations of the world move
up the highway of history, so many civilizations, having looked at other
civilizations that refused to dim the lights, and they decided to refuse
to dim theirs. And Toynbee tells that out of the twenty-two
civilizations that have risen up, all but about seven have found themselves
in the junkheap of destruction. It is because civilizations fail to have
sense enough to dim the lights. And if somebody doesn't have sense
enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in
this world, the whole of our civilization will be plunged into the abyss
of destruction. And we will all end up destroyed because nobody had any
sense on the highway of history. Somewhere somebody must have some sense.
Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate,
toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral,
ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must
have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and
the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.
There's another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is
because hate distorts the personality of the hater. We usually think
of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or
the groups hated. But it is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous
and injurious to the individual who hates. You just begin hating
somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things. You can't see
straight when you hate. You can't walk straight when you hate. You can't
stand upright. Your vision is distorted. There is nothing more tragic
than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate. He comes to
the point that he becomes a pathological case. For the person who hates,
you can stand up and see a person and that person can be beautiful, and
you will call them ugly. For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes
ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good
becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true
becomes false and the false becomes true. That's what hate does.
You can't see right. The symbol of objectivity is lost.
Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.
And this is why Jesus says hate *recording interrupted*
. . . that you want to be integrated with yourself, and the way to be
integrated with yourself is be sure that you meet every situation of life
with an abounding love. Never hate, because it ends up in tragic,
neurotic responses. Psychologists and psychiatrists are telling us
today that the more we hate, the more we develop guilt feelings and we
begin to subconsciously repress or consciously suppress certain emotions,
and they all stack up in our subconscious selves and make for tragic,
neurotic responses. And may this not be the neuroses of many
individuals as they confront life that that is an element of hate there.
And modern psychology is calling on us now to love. But long before modern
psychology came into being, the world's greatest psychologist who walked
around the hills of Galilee told us to love. He looked at men and said:
"Love your enemies; don't hate anybody." It's not enough for us to hate
your friends because-to to love your friends-because when you start
hating anybody, it destroys the very center of your creative response to
life and the universe; so love everybody. Hate at any point is a cancer
that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence.
It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective
center of your life. So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater
as well as the hated.
Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, "Love your enemies." It
is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power
there that eventually transforms individuals. That's why Jesus says,
"Love your enemies." Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to
redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies,
you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of
redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though
they're mistreating you. Here's the person who is a neighbor, and this
person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being
friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don't do anything to embarrass
them. Just keep loving them, and they can't stand it too long. Oh, they
react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because
they're mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt
feelings, and sometimes they'll hate you a little more at that transition
period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will
break down under the load. That's love, you see. It is redemptive, and
this is why Jesus says love. There's something about love that builds up
and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is
destructive. So love your enemies.
I think of one of the best examples of this. We all remember the great
president of this United States, Abraham Lincoln-these United States
rather. You remember when Abraham Lincoln was running for president
of the United States, there was a man who ran all around the country
talking about Lincoln. He said a lot of bad things about Lincoln, a
lot of unkind things. And sometimes he would get to the point that he
would even talk about his looks, saying, "You don't want a tall, lanky,
ignorant man like this as the president of the United States." He went
on and on and on and went around with that type of attitude and wrote
about it. Finally, one day Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the
United States. And if you read the great biography of Lincoln, if you
read the great works about him, you will discover that as every president
comes to the point, he came to the point of having to choose a Cabinet.
And then came the time for him to choose a Secretary of War. He looked
across the nation, and decided to choose a man by the name of
Mr. Stanton. And when Abraham Lincoln stood around his advisors and
mentioned this fact, they said to him: "Mr. Lincoln, are you a fool? Do
you know what Mr. Stanton has been saying about you? Do you know what he
has done, tried to do to you? Do you know that he has tried to defeat you
on every hand? Do you know that, Mr. Lincoln? Did you read all of those
derogatory statements that he made about you?" Abraham Lincoln
stood before the advisors around him and said: "Oh yes, I know about it;
I read about it; I've heard him myself. But after looking over the
country, I find that he is the best man for the job."
Mr. Stanton did become Secretary of War, and a few months later,
Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. And if you go to Washington, you will
discover that one of the greatest words or statements ever made by, about
Abraham Lincoln was made about this man Stanton. And as Abraham Lincoln
came to the end of his life, Stanton stood up and said:
"Now he belongs to the ages." And he made a beautiful statement concerning
the character and the stature of this man. If Abraham Lincoln had hated
Stanton, if Abraham Lincoln had answered everything Stanton said, Abraham
Lincoln would have not transformed and redeemed Stanton. Stanton would have
gone to his grave hating Lincoln, and Lincoln would have gone
to his grave hating Stanton. But through the power of love Abraham Lincoln
was able to redeem Stanton.
That's it. There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet. Jesus
discovered it centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi of India discovered it a few
years ago, but most men and most women never discover it. For they believe
in hitting for hitting; they believe in an eye for an eye and a
tooth for a tooth; they believe in hating for hating; but Jesus comes to
us and says, "This isn't the way."
And oh this morning, as I think of the fact that our world is in
transition now. Our whole world is facing a revolution. Our nation is
facing a revolution, our nation. One of the things that concerns me most
is that in the midst of the revolution of the world and the midst of the
revolution of this nation, that we will discover the meaning of Jesus' words.
History unfortunately leaves some people oppressed and some people
oppressors. And there are three ways that individuals who are oppressed
can deal with their oppression. One of them is to rise up against their
oppressors with physical violence and corroding hatred. But oh this
isn't the way. For the danger and the weakness of this method is
its futility. Violence creates many more social problems than it solves.
And I've said, in so many instances, that as the Negro, in particular,
and colored peoples all over the world struggle for freedom, if they
succumb to the temptation of using violence in their struggle, unborn
generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of
bitterness, and our chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign
of meaningless chaos. Violence isn't the way.
Another way is to acquiesce and to give in, to resign yourself to the
oppression. Some people do that. They discover the difficulties of the
wilderness moving into the promised land, and they would rather go back
to the despots of Egypt because it's difficult to get in the promised
land. And so they resign themselves to the fate of oppression; they
somehow acquiesce to this thing. But that too isn't the way because
non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation
But there is another way. And that is to organize mass
non-violent resistance based on the principle of love. It seems to me
that this is the only way as our eyes look to the future. As we look out
across the years and across the generations, let us develop and move right
here. We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power
of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old
world a new world. We will be able to make men better.
Love is the only way. Jesus discovered that.
Not only did Jesus discover it, even great military leaders discover
that. One day as Napoleon came toward the end of his career and looked
back across the years-the great Napoleon that at a very early age had all
but conquered the world. He was not stopped until he became, till he
moved out to the battle of Leipzig and then to Waterloo. But that
same Napoleon one day stood back and looked 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, and
even to this day millions will die for him."
Yes, I can see Jesus walking around the hills and the valleys of Palestine.
And I can see him looking out at the Roman Empire with all of her
fascinating and intricate military machinery. But in the midst of that,
I can hear him saying: "I will not use this method. Neither will I hate
the Roman Empire."
Radio Announcer: (WRMA, Montgomery, Alabama. Due to the fact
of the delay this morning, we are going over with the sermon.)
several words inaudible
. . . and just start marching.
And I'm proud to stand here in Dexter this morning and say that that army
is still marching. It grew up from a group of eleven or twelve men to
more than seven hundred million today. Because of the power and influence
of the personality of this Christ, he was able to split history into a.d.
and b.c. Because of his power, he was able to shake the hinges from the
gates of the Roman Empire. And all around the world this morning, we
can hear the glad echo of heaven ring:
Jesus shall reign wherever sun,
Does his successive journeys run;
His kingdom spreads from shore to shore,
Till moon shall wane and wax no more.
We can hear another chorus singing: "All hail the power of Jesus name!"
We can hear another chorus singing: "Hallelujah, hallelujah! He's King
of Kings and Lord of Lords. Hallelujah, hallelujah!"
We can hear another choir singing:
In Christ there is no East or West.
In Him no North or South,
But one great Fellowship of Love
Throughout the whole wide world.
This is the only way.
And our civilization must discover that. Individuals must discover that
as they deal with other individuals. There is a little tree planted on
a little hill and on that tree hangs the most influential character that
ever came in this world. But never feel that that tree is a meaningless
drama that took place on the stages of history. Oh no, it is a
telescope through which 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. It is an eternal
reminder to a generation depending on nuclear and atomic energy, a
generation depending on physical violence, that love is the only
creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.
So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my
brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you,
"I love you. I would rather die than hate you." And I'm foolish enough to
believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most
recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God's
kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal
life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons
that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us,
and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.
Oh God, help us in our lives and in all of our attitudes, to work out
this controlling force of love, this controlling power that can solve
every problem that we confront in all areas. Oh, we talk about politics;
we talk about the problems facing our atomic civilization. Grant that
all men will come together and discover that as we solve the
crisis and solve these problems-the international problems, the problems
of atomic energy, the problems of nuclear energy, and yes, even the race
problem-let us join together in a great fellowship of love and bow down
at the feet of Jesus. Give us this strong determination. In the name
and spirit of this Christ, we pray. Amen.