Strengthened by Love: Seven Themes on Spiritual Leadership from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today we pause to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Though known as a civil rights leader, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, in recently reading his book of sermons, “The Strength to Love,” I was keenly reminded through his passionate words, colorful metaphors and spiritual themes, that Dr. King was first and foremost, a man of God — preacher and pastor.

In a day and time, when so many preachers are clamoring to make “their ministries” known, I was reminded that Dr. King’s “ministry” was the fight for justice, providing hope for a people who had too long been oppressed by segregation, and modeling the love ethic of Christ to perpetuators of an unjust system.

In “The Strength to Love,” Dr. King shares two stories that gave me insight into the depth of his faith. In the first, he recalls receiving a particularly virulent phone call which triggered his fears. He writes about not being able to sleep one night and going into the kitchen to heat a pot of coffee “in this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God.”

At the kitchen table he prayed. There he experienced the presence of God as he had never before, receiving the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.” God had given Dr. King an inner calm to dissipate his fears and uncertainties, buoying him to “face anything.”

His transparency reminded me that fighting for a just cause or working for transformation is not without its threats, attendant fears and exhaustion. If the man who would become the giant of the movement was confronted with them, then surely we will be also. Yet, he models for us where to go in such times; he went directly to God in prayer. He believed that God is a powerful God of justice, as well as a God with whom we experience intimate relationship to strengthen our inner resolve.

Dr. King also shared a story about Mother Pollard, an elderly woman whom he described as “one of the most dedicated participants in the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama.” Mother Pollard deeply understood the significance of the movement and on at least one occasion was quite discerning of Dr. King’s inner struggle. At the end of a speech he had given at a mass meeting, Mother Pollard came to him. Dr. King writes, “I [had] attempted to convey an overt impression of strength and courage, although I was inwardly depressed and fear-stricken.”

Mother Pollard didn’t inquire into his inner state, rather she made an observation that Dr. King hadn’t spoken as strongly as she was apparently accustomed to hearing from him. After evading her comment a couple times, she pointedly, poignantly and radiantly declared, “God’s gonna take care of you.” In that moment, as she spoke, Dr. King writes, “everything in me quivered and quickened with the pulsing tremor of raw energy.”

Dr. King shared that long after Mother Pollard had passed on, her words had come back time and time again “to give light and peace and guidance to [his] troubled soul.” Yes, God used Mother Pollard to, again, strengthen Dr. King’s resolve.

By now, many of you have seen the movie “Selma” that recounts one period in the movement. Filled with heart-wrenching emotion, I watched on-screen portrayals of the brutality and violence with which the women and men of the movement were met.

Surely these great women and men had stepped into the chaotic moment of the fight for racial justice. To organize, and march, to be knocked down and get back up again and again, they had to be called to the cause of freedom and justice. Moreover, they had to have a faith that sustained them; faith in a just God who guided them and who quelled their fears.

Reading “The Strength to Love,” reminded me that Dr. King and the other men and women of the 1960’s didn’t just lead the Civil Rights Movement, they led a spiritual movement. From the deep wellspring of their faith, they were strengthened inside to love the pursuit of justice enough to keep going and to love angry people enough to get back up again and again.

I’d like to share seven themes from this writing that stuck with me…

On Justice

The Bible, always clear in stressing both attributes of God, expresses his tough-mindedness in his justice and wrath and his tender-heartedness in his love and grace. God has two outstretched arms. One is strong enough to surround us with justice, and one is gentle enough to embrace us with grace.

We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to co-operate with that system, and thereby to become a participant of evil.

On Nonviolence

“I am convinced that if we succumb to the temptation to use violence in our struggle for freedom, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be a never-ending reign of chaos.”

“A third way is open in our quest for freedom, namely, nonviolent resistance, that combines tough-mindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the soft minded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted.”

On The Church

“A weary world, pleading desperately for peace, has often found the church morally sanctioning war.”

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”

On Faith

“Faith adjourns the assemblies of hopelessness and brings new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.”

“This faith transforms the whirlwind of despair into a warm and reviving breeze of hope.”

“At times we may feel that we do not need God, but on the day when the storms of disappointment rage, the winds of disaster blow, and the tidal waves of grief beat against our lives, if we do not have a deep and patient faith our emotional lives will be ripped to shreds.”

On Courage

“These forces that threaten to negate life must be challenged by courage, which is the power of life to affirm itself in spite of life’s ambiguities. This requires the creative will that enables us to hew out a stone of hope from a mountain of despair.”

“We must constantly build dykes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”

“Courage, therefore, is the power of the mind to overcome fear.” 

On Love

“Fear is mastered through love.” 

“The kind of love which led Christ to a cross…is not soft, anemic, and sentimental. Such love confronts evil without flinching and shows in our popular parlance an infinite capacity ‘to take it.’ Such love overcomes the world even from a rough-hewn cross against the skyline.”

“Hate is rooted in fear, and the only cure for fear-hate is love.”

On Death

“Death is inevitable. It is a democracy for all of the people, not an aristocracy for some of the people…We need not fear it. The God who brought our whirling planet from primal vapor and has led the human pilgrimage for lo these many centuries can most assuredly lead us through death’s dark night into the bright daybreak of eternal life.”

May these words of Dr. King remind you, as they did me, that the work for freedom, justice, and ultimately transformation, must be motivated and strengthened by love.

Dr. Jeanne Porter King

All quotes taken from “The Strength to Love,” in The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (edited by James M. Washington, Harper, San Francisco, 1986)

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