It was from Pam Spaulding that I learned of this open letter to Rev. Rick Warren from Rodney N. Powell, M.D., a former student activist in the Civil Rights Movement and a member of the Board of Directors of Soulforce. Dr. Powell’s remarks take just a little over four minutes, and each word is well worth all your attention, for the gravitas of his voice as much as the gravity of his words. They seem fitting on this day, the federal celebration of Dr. King’s legacy and the eve of the inauguration of Barack Obama, from whom so many of us have hoped for so much.
Emmett Till and Matthew Shepherd were innocent victims of hate and bigotry, and their deaths are directly related to such words spoken by religious leaders.
What I do know, as someone who learned the meaning of justice from Dr. King, is that both religion-based bigotry and political expediency that exploits it for votes perpetuate hate and injustice. And both miserably fail Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community.
[More words of Dr. Powell’s here.]
Now more than ever, more of us are in need of a sense of this: both community, and belovedness. King’s legacy is so, so rich. Philosophical. Tactical. Emotional. Theological. What both inspires and challenges me the most, I think, is his steadfast dedication to love as the answer. Over and over again. In his 1963 sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” for instance, King says,
Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.
within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls “the image of God,” you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never sluff off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.
Quite a challenge. But today of all days, it’s worth a try. I’m not saying I’m going to get anywhere near loving Rev. Warren any time soon; not him, nor any of the people he marshaled to vote against my family’s civil protections last November. But I can’t honestly celebrate Dr. King today, neither can I preserve an unmitigated hope for Mr. Obama tomorrow, if I don’t try.