Have you ever been reminded unexpectedly of a book from your past that influenced you enormously at an earlier time in your life? Earlier this week I was rearranging the books in my library in order to put some new volumes in their proper place on the shelf when a book caught my eye that has really ministered to me over the years. The book is Strength to Love by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I am not surprised that Mrs. King said that “if there’s one book that Martin . . . has written that people consistently tell me has changed their lives, it is Strength to Love.” She explained that this book embodied the foundational force behind Dr. King and his ministry — “the transcendent moral ethic of love.”
As I leafed through the book earlier this week, my eyes fell upon one of many passages I had highlighted when I read the book when it was first published in 1963. One underlined passage reads, “Few words in the New Testament more clearly and solemnly express the magnanimity of Jesus’ spirit than that sublime utterance from the cross, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ This is divine love at its best.”
Dr. King points out it was precisely at this point where Jesus was suffering an unjustified, excruciating, agonizing death that he pleaded, “Father, forgive them.” Dr. King then expands on the subject (one notices that Dr. King wrote the way he spoke, with a melodic eloquence that lingers in your mind.) Jesus taught his followers “to love their enemies and to pray for them that despitefully used them. This teaching fell upon the ears of many of His hearers like a strange music from a foreign land.”
Yet when Jesus “was crucified by hate, he responded with aggressive love.” The lesson was crystal clear: “Only goodness can drive out evil and only love can conquer hate.”
Dr. King, who we must always remember was a Baptist minister, declared,
We must see the cross as the magnificent symbol of love conquering hate and of light overcoming darkness. But in the midst of this glowing affirmation, let us never forget that our Lord and Master was nailed to that cross because of human blindness. Those who crucified him knew not what they did (Strength to Love, 46).
Strength to Love was published in 1963, the same tumultuous year that produced “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (which should be required reading in order to graduate from every American High School) and the “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. I had the privilege of reading Strength to Love the year it was published. I was sixteen years old and had just surrendered my life to full-time Gospel ministry in the spring of that year. The book, his letter, and his speech all had an enormous impact on me. I realized at the outset of my call to ministry that it was my Christian duty to work, strive, and sacrifice for my beloved country to become what it was not, a society where people were “not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
I am still transfixed by that dream, and I will not let it go, for myself or for my country. I will not abandon the higher ground of Dr. King’s vision to descend into the fever swamp of division and hostility produced by Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality where everyone is judged by the two immutable characteristics that they cannot control (notwithstanding the claims of transgenderism) — their ethnicity and their sex, both of which were determined at the moment of their conception.
Since I have witnessed and experienced the transformative power of Christian love both personally and in American culture as a child of the Civil Rights Revolution, I am determined to love those who have abandoned, or who oppose, Dr. King’s vision, from the left or the right. I am giving them the benefit of the doubt. I hope and believe “they know not what they do” and have no knowledge of the hatred and growing centrifugal forces of ethnic tribalism their philosophy and beliefs would generate if they were to come to dominate American society.
Dr. Richard Land, BA (magna cum laude), Princeton; D.Phil. Oxford; and Th.M., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) and has served since 2013 as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Land has been teaching, writing, and speaking on moral and ethical issues for the last half century in addition to pastoring several churches. He is the author of The Divided States of America, Imagine! A God Blessed America, Real Homeland Security, For Faith & Family and Send a Message to Mickey.