But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:44-45
Last week we remembered how Jesus was betrayed, denied, beaten, crucified and resurrected so that we might know the depth of God’s love for us and for all humanity.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44-45). When Jesus died on the cross for our redemption, he practiced what he preached, praying that God might forgive those who were killing him (Luke 23:34).
Fifty years ago this week, on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King followed his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and showed us how to love our enemies and pray for those who are against us. Dr. King gave his life for his cause.
I met Dr. King and heard him speak when I was a seminary student at Boston University School of Theology in the 1960s. What impressed me most about Dr. King was how he practiced these teachings of Jesus.
In his book Strength to Love, Dr. King writes:
[T]he command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world. Jesus is not an impractical idealist: he is the practical realist. . . .
Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. (47-53)
In 1965, I participated in the Selma voting rights marches, and experienced firsthand how God uses our prayers for our enemies to transform lives.
Rev. James Reeb was a Unitarian Minister from Boston who joined the marches in Selma. After one of those marches, he was beaten and killed by white supremacists. Fearing for their own lives, many white protestors left the marches. Dr. King called his former professor and friend Dr. Harold DeWolf at Boston University and asked if some seminary students would come to support the people of Selma in their quest for voting rights.
I joined a group of twenty-two students from Boston University and spent a week in Selma marching for voting rights. We would pray at a Baptist church in Selma, link arms with a marching partner and march down the street to the Selma Courthouse, where a Selma citizen would try to register to vote and be turned away.
As we stood on the courthouse steps we were surrounded by dozens of people shouting hateful and racist taunts. In the midst of all this, an African American pastor prayed: “O God of all people, we pray for those surrounding us who have such hatred in their hearts. Turn their hearts of hate to hearts of love and their hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. O God give us courage and protection as we work for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty flowing stream. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.”
The Selma marches eventually helped to pass the Voting Rights bill of 1965, which guaranteed the right to vote for all United States citizens regardless of race, creed or color.
Forty years later, in 2005, I spoke at a retreat for United Methodist pastors in Alabama. I shared with them my experience marching for voting rights in Selma as a young man. After my speech, a white pastor came up to me with tears in his eyes. He had been in Selma at the same time as I, but on the other side. He said he had done some terrible things to African American people. “What changed you?”I asked him, “Jesus Christ,” he replied. He went on to explain that he had become so filled with hatred that he couldn’t stand himself. His wife convinced him to attend a Methodist revival, where he knelt at the altar and confessed to God all of his sins. He told me, “I felt the loving and forgiving power of Christ come into my life, and it changed me forever.” He became a United Methodist pastor to help all people know they are loved and cherished by God and to build bridges of reconciliation among people from different races.
As he told me his story I realized that the prayer of an African American pastor on the steps of the Selma courthouse forty years earlier had been answered, and a heart of hate had been changed by God into a heart of love for all people.
We live in a time when we need to hear again the words of Jesus to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In our time of deep division and conflict, may we practice what Jesus taught and pray for those with whom we disagree.
As Dr. King said: “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can drive out hate.”
This week, on April 3-4, United’s Center for Global Renewal and Missions is sponsoring the 2nd annual Emerson Colaw Lecture Series, featuring two days of lectures, workshops, and worship services to help us honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We hope you can join us for as many of these events as possible.
Grace and peace,
Dr. Kent Millard
United Theological Seminary