I was listening to a Dr. King tribute show on NPR last Thursday on my way back from a planning committee meeting for the Annual Friendship and Dialogue Dinner that will be hosted by Dialogue Institute Austin. Funnily enough, one of my Muslim friends there had told me a story of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and how he’d told people, who’d to travel for hours to Mecca to pray with him, that the traveling time could be used for contemplation and prayer and was really a blessing in disguise. That turned out to be true for me on my hour-long drive back home. Listening to stories of Dr. King was both uplifting and inspiring.
The interviewees on the radio program had all known Dr. King personally. Of the things they said and stories they recounted, one struck me as particularly relevant to our times.
A Spiritual Malady That Must Be Avoided
It was Dr. King’s refusal to harbor feelings of anger and hatred, even when justified, which got my attention. According to a close friend, who had also read through most of Dr. King’s unpublished sermons, this was a reoccurring theme in the reverend’s life. He believed that destructive emotions, however deserving, were a spiritual malady that did more harm to the one harboring them than to those who the emotions were directed at.
Here was a man who bore the brunt of the hateful antipathy that was directed at the civil rights struggle, a man who had largely made his peace with the fact that his work would likely lead to his premature death (which it did), refusing to participate in the hate and anger that was directed at him, mustering the internal power of love, compassion, and forgiveness in his dealings with adversaries instead—and with great success, I might add.
The Echo of Dr. King's Life
I dare say that his commitment to meeting hate with love was one of the things that made Dr. King strong, not weak. In contrast, many wear their raw emotions of hatred, anger, and outrage as a badge of honor in today's world and define themselves by who they are against rather than what they are for.
Don’t get me wrong. They have a right to do that.
However, if we listen to the echo of Dr. King’s life, do we not hear the reverberations of a better approach, a more powerful approach, a more loving approach, a less taxing, enervating and exhausting approach? Are not love, compassion and forgiveness strong allies in our attempts to create a society where all are accepted, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political affiliation? Are we not more likely to win over people by being considerate, generous and kind, even as we contest practices that are exclusionary, judgmental and hurtful? Are we not better off by cultivating love in our hearts than allowing feelings of anger and hatred to fester?
Attempting to Follow Dr. King's Example
I am by no means perfect in this regard (from the accounts I heard, neither was Dr. King). I still succumb to feelings of anger and despair under much less external pressure than he ever experienced, and yet, instead of nurturing those feelings, expressing them to the world, allowing them to gain steam in social media feeds across platforms, I try to resolve them internally or with the help of my close friends. My goal is to build bridges and heal divides. Sometimes that means taking a stance for something, sometimes against, but I never do it in anger, never in hatred, never in emotional turmoil, not if I can help it.
While Dr. King as an extraordinary exemplar of meeting hate with love, I remember that a similar type of thinking used to be common knowledge. “Never write a letter in anger,” my father used to tell me when I started writing letters to the editor in my late teens. “If you bark loudly and aggressively you will give people a just reason to ignore what you are saying. Use reason and compassion in your arguments instead.” That was (and remains) good advice, completely in line with the aspirations of Dr. King.
Rev. Gudjon Bergmann
Founder and Lead Educator at Harmony Interfaith Initiative. Author of Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides.
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