Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. : On Love and Justice

In graduate school, I came across a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. that continues to be a powerful reminder when I consider his life and work as I do on this day. In the book Strength to Love, Martin Luther King, Jr. defends the notion of Christian love against those who said it was powerless to correct wrongs, and he also criticized the notion of some Christians that love is a feeling rather than a deed. King offers another view, which is that justice is necessary for love, and love is necessary for justice. Christian love at its best understands that it is impossible to love someone and yet treat them with disregard or discrimination on any grounds. Love requires that we treat every individual with dignity, respect and equality, or it’s not really love. On the other hand, justice that seeks its just demands without regard to the feelings, values and culture of those who must sacrifice to give it also is a justice that has forgotten to love and often gives way to violence.

Over the past year, an experience of mine in which someone kept telling me how much they cared about me but kept treating me badly reminded me over and over again of the powerful words of Martin Luther King, Jr. about justice and love. I have no doubt that this friend loved me in theory; he just had a hard time translating that into how he actually treated me. Love is not just a feeling or a verbal expression. At the end of the day, it comes down to how we regard and treat each other. Immigrants, women, racial minorities and gay people are still the victims of churches, employers and relationships that claim they care, but continue to perpetuate inequality through their silences and their compromises.

So on this day in which we honor the person and dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., I offer that quote that has remained so potent for me over the years:

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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