"I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.
This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant."
-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Noble Peace Prize Acceptance Speech
During his great life, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a multitude of sermons and speeches, both prepared and spontaneous, to audiences as small as a few dozen and as large as a few hundred thousand. Words were his most influential instrument in the struggle for equal civil rights against the systematic segregation imposed by a country claiming “liberty and justice for all.” As he spoke, his words were both Biblical and prophetic, and he was never shy at projecting God’s truth in the face of evil.
Truth is held tightly by the Orthodox Church. Since Christ’s crucifixion and glorious resurrection, the Church has maintained the fullness of the truth of His message, which is, as it relates to human relationships, the genuine communication of love. Such is an innate intention of all the world’s major faiths and traditions. Some might argue this contradicts the claim of Orthodoxy or dilutes the richness and diversity of world religions. However, from the Orthodox perspective, this is completely compatible through the anthropological element of creation. In creating man in His image and likeness, God breathed life into dirt and we became more than just beings, we became temples of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Truth. Therefore, Truth dwells within all mankind, to the degree at which we allow it, and all people are capable of expounding “unarmed truth and unconditional love.”
If every person possesses the kernel of truth and love, how then does man allow himself to turn against his fellow man? The Orthodox Church attributes the actions against love to the Fall of Adam and Eve, the moment when humanity thought itself better than to need an authentic relationship with God. With the Fall came the birth of sin, which distorts the treasures of love and truth into desire and injustice. Sin is a heavy veil that proceeds to blind the needs of those around us. Contemplating on the antithesis of love, Archbishop Anastasios of Albania offers the notion that it is not hate that severs relationships but rather the ego. Often interpreted as the opposite of love, hate is merely one of the many ramifications of when the ego within becomes too strong to tame. Jealousy, greed, and lust are also among the consequences. These negative traits are therefore unnatural to the human person in that they draw us away from attaining God’s likeness and keep us away from each other.
Dr. King and other civil rights leaders of his time were acutely aware that the fight for equality began countless generations before them, even before the discovery of the New World. For too long, the ego has sought to manipulate the hearts and minds of those with an advantageous position over another. The ego has infiltrated every society and institution in which man takes part, which is how the government of “one Nation under God, indivisible,” justified the indoctrination of divisibility. King recognized the ego’s puppeteering presence behind segregation, writing, “It not only harms one physically but injures one spiritually. It scars the soul and degrades the personality. It inflicts the segregated with a false sense of inferiority, while confirming the segregator in a false estimate of his own superiority.” The United States, challenged by cumulative egos of apprehensive or racist whites, could not accept the tremendous racial and economic divide to which it had grown accustom.
Thrust into the international spotlight during the tumultuous decade of the 1960s, the endeavor for equality of all people catalyzed like never before. King led the crusade against the unjust power of one man over another with his championed combat method of dialogue and rhetoric. Instead of turning to the violent uses of force and defamation which evil invites, King opted for the purity of Christ’s message by “speaking the truth in love.”
Despite the obstacles of prison, physical assault, and death threats, Dr. King remained steadfast in his promotion of love. Like a gardener tending to his rosebuds, King patiently appealed to that kernel of truth within every person, nurturing its growth with every opportune speech, sermon, and interview. That truth, through the power of its natural purity, unravels ego’s veil, and invigorates the Spirit that dwells within. King sought a change in public policy by means of a change in the hearts of the public. He understood that beyond the unjust governmental regulations and discriminatory laws was a dark force obstructing the intrinsic compassion of the opposition: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” The illumination of King’s words motivated love, ultimately changing the way racial segregation and inequality is viewed in our country.
April 4, 1968 was a day when darkness overcame one man’s heart so much so that he acted on the desire to take Dr. King’s life. King foreshadowed his death the night before while offering his final sermon in Memphis: “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” The shock of his assassination was not enough to stifle his message nor stir hate among his followers. His words were powerful, moving, and germinated the kernels of truth of even those strewn on rocks and among thorns. To this day and for generations more, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s God-inspired message lives on despite his untimely death, proving that indeed “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”
Andrew Calivas is the Coordinator of Ecumenical Programs for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical & Interfaith Relations.