Ira Chernus  


If Martin Luther King, Jr., were still alive, would he be preaching the gospel of nonviolence? Would he urge us to love our enemies, who hijack jetliners to kill thousands, and pray for our persecutors, who might attack us with smallpox?

Yes, I believe he would.

Dr. King was no stranger to terrorism. For his people, the terror of midnight lynchings, burnings, rape, and murder was an ever-present possibility—and all too often a reality. The numbers who died from racist terror were literally uncounted.

Yet Dr. King urged African-Americans to love even the meanest white racists. Not to like them, but to love them. There is no way to like racists, he acknowledged. And loving them could never mean tolerating their evil deeds. He spoke eloquently of all the ways racism stunts and twists the personalities of it victims, preventing them from reaching their full human potential.

He spoke just as eloquently, though, of all the ways racism prevents the racists themselves from reaching their potential. He saw them, too, as fully and tragically human—God’s children—victimized by the evil system they perpetuated. Every kind of evil cripples the persecutor as well as the victim, he said. Both are dragged down by the same process. As long as that process continues, they are tied together. Whatever happens to one happens to both.

The paradox is that only the victims can see what is really going on. The victims really have the power; only they can stop the cycle. Through their response, they can either elevate themselves and their persecutors together or drag them both down deeper into distortion and suffering. Attacking your enemies may relieve the symptom for a while; it may make the symptom worse. But helping your enemies raise up their own lives is the only way to treat the underlying disease. It is the only way to make everyone more safe.

It is common sense, then, to love your enemies. Dr. King proved the point. Many call his beliefs naïve and unrealistic. Yet he managed to break the back of legalized racism and transform the realities of our political life.

Today it is terribly difficult to love our enemies. It means seeing terrorists as real people, with the same kind of hopes and fears and suffering that we have. It means not turning them into two-dimensional symbols of evil, like the bad guys in a low-grade Hollywood movie. That kind of dehumanizing is hard to avoid these days. It feels good to live life as a Hollywood movie, where we all band together to capture and punish the bad guys. It lets us be the purely good guys, with no taint of evil in our souls.

The challenge Dr. King left us is to see that our enemies, just like us, were born capable of both good and evil. Something happened to them. Whatever it was, it twisted their personalities, preventing them from fulfilling the potential for good they all had on the day they were born. But they still want to sit happily in a warm home with friends and family, eating and laughing. They still long for a human touch and a human smile. It took some terrible distortion to turn them into mass murderers.

If Dr. King were still alive, he would be pained to see how quick we are to dehumanize our enemies. Yet he would understand that we are driven by fear. It is fear, more than anything else, that prevents both victims and persecutors from growing toward their full human potential. Frightened people do not flourish. They only strike out blindly. Perhaps those who attacked us were afraid of something. Perhaps others like them are now more afraid, more driven to attack.

If we, driven by our fear, turn from victims into attackers, we only perpetuate the system that threatens us all. The courage to grow beyond our fear now does not mean liking our enemies our forgiving their evil deeds. It does mean somehow learning to love and respect every person, to care deeply about what happens to them—no matter how terrible the things they have done.

The courage Dr. King exemplified also means looking honestly at ourselves. At the height of the Vietnam war, he risked his career by condemning the dehumanizing military violence he saw embedded in the American way of life. If he were still alive, could he see and say anything different today?

Each year, we can honor the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. by keeping alive the ideal of speaking honestly about ourselves and loving our enemies. This year, it may be harder than ever. But Dr. King inspired hope because he made every one who heard his voice feel capable of a higher kind of love. Surely, he still calls us to honor his memory not merely by understanding his ideals, but by acting upon them.