Love in action.

Or: “MLK – live blog-ish, part 5.” This project has long since ceased to be anything close to a “live” blog, so I’m moving on! From this point forward, posts considering Strength to Love will be titled after the chapter they investigate. Each can be read independently of previous installments, but if you’re interested, those can be found here.

Chapter four: Love in action

What does it say about a man that he writes a sermon entitled “Love in action” while sitting in a jail cell?

Arrested for holding a prayer vigil outside the city hall of Albany, Georgia, Dr. King and his friend and fellow organizer Ralph Abernathy were held in a “dirty, filthy” jail cell for fifteen days, during which time King began to produce what would eventually become Strength to Love. Most of the chapters were adapted from sermons he had already written, but this and two others were composed in that jail cell, in July 1962 (the final chapter, “Pilgrimage to nonviolence,” was adapted from material which had appeared elsewhere).

“Forgiveness,” King writes from his imprisonment, “is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude.”

[But] we live according to the philosophy that life is a matter of getting even and saving face. We bow before the altar of revenge. Samson, eyeless at Gaza, prays fervently for his enemies — but only for their destruction.

Samson, eyeless at Gaza.

I can think only of Israel, of last year’s war, of the on-going, four-year old blockade, a blockade that has turned modern-day Gaza into an open-air prison, with neither enough food nor medical supplies, neither clean water nor regular electricity, I think of Israel, blindly flailing in furious wrath, seeking revenge again and again and again, every day, every day, every day. Samson’s hair has been shorn. Through his own folly, what was once his source of power has been taken from him, and he is left, eyeless, at Gaza, his last recourse the desperate ability to bring the edifice in which he stands crashing down around both him and his enemies, the destruction of whom has become his final, binding passion. “Those who were slain by him as he died outnumbered those who had been slain by him when he lived.” (Judges 16:30)

In casual conversation, and occasionally at the national level, Israelis often mock the international community’s desire to see them make peace with the Palestinian nation: “We’re not Christians. We can’t afford to turn the other cheek.” America, in particular, is considered naïve in this regard. The world doesn’t understand the extent of Israel’s troubles and the danger with which it lives — “forgiveness,” it is assumed, would only condemn us to a miserable end.

But we are blind, our eyes gouged out not by an enemy’s hand, but by our own, because we placed our trust in the seductive call of fear coupled with power. We stand at Gaza, unable to see what we have done, believing that we are right, that we are protecting ourselves, our heritage, and our future — blind to the fact that in the end, we will not only wreak revenge on an entire people, but kill ourselves, as well.

Nothing in the world [writes the naive Christian sitting in a Georgia jail cell, his crime found in the color of his skin] is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity…. [Humanity has] a moral responsibility to be intelligent.

…Modern man is presently having a rendezvous with chaos, not merely because of human badness, but also because of human stupidity. If Western civilization continues to degenerate until it… falls hopelessly into a bottomless void, the cause will be not only its undeniable sinfulness, but also its appalling blindness.

Blindness which is, itself, a sin — for it is self-inflicted.


I’ll be honest: This chapter has, so far, proven to be the most challenging for me in terms of its frankly Christian content. Dr. King’s source here is the prayer uttered by Jesus on the cross: “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do,” and most of the chapter is spent calling on his readers and the church writ large to follow the lead of their Savior.

As a Jew — and, not only that, but a Jew who actively rejected Christ for Judaism — and not only that, but a Jew who has little patience with religious exclusionism of any form — this is a challenge for me. As I read more deeply into this book, Dr. King is taking a place in my internal life that is akin to a prophet, a prophet whose love and clear vision cracks my heart open and calls me to account and action — but what to do about the fact that my prophet was a Baptist minister?

I don’t know yet. I’ve decided that when I’m done with Strength to Love, I’ll read about Dr. King’s relationship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a giant of American Jewish theology and Dr. King’s good friend. If the Holocaust-survivor rabbi could find a common place of commitment with a Black Baptist minister, surely I can sort out my own little discomforts.

Dr. King speaks at New York's Riverside Church with Rabbi Heschel at his side.

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  1. sue swartz

     /  January 28, 2010

    Samson, eyeless at Gaza… Thank you! Thank you! I’ve been working on a poem about the Jewish “romance” with Amalek, i.e., the king (and people) who tried to destroy us and the command to remember to blot out their name from under the heavens, a command we read every year in the Torah. Oh, how we love to remember to forget to remember to forget.

  2. Sherri Munnerlyn

     /  February 19, 2010


    I found myself reading your post here early yesterday morning, googling love in action in Palestine. I had just read some recent newsletters from a Palestinian Christian in Bethlehem, Mazin Qumsiyeh,
    in which he was discussing recent and planned nonviolent protests to the Occupation in the OPT. What is always so amazing to me, about his posts, is he speaks regularly about people of all ages and religions and ethnic backgrounds and nationalities joining together to protest injustices in nonviolent ways. I can hardly read one of his posts without finding myself in tears. He speaks of injustice, and he shows me the way people there are daily presently pouring their lives into carrying out love in action in response to injustices. His newsletters inspire me and feel me with hope and humble me.

    Martin Luther King, Jr, he lived out love in action in all the work he did to seek racial equality for black Americans. What could the world be if we had more people like him in it, more people committed like he was, in righting injustices? Imagine that.

    I really enjoyed reading your post here, I have been meaning to try to read more of Martin Luther King, Jrs writings, and will look for this book, Strength To Love.

    Reading of your concern over events in Israel/Palestine, you might be interested in a discussion forum on the beliefnet website. Here is a link to a recent discussion thread. There are Israelis who post there, but most consistently defend Israel’s actions, refusing to admit that Israel is at fault in any of their practices.

    Beliefnet also has many other discussion forums, to discuss a wide variety of issues.

    Here is a link to my profile on beliefnet.