Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ” A Gift of Love” – book review

A Gift of Love was one of the books that I bought in Black History Month last year when I had realized that I hadn’t read nearly enough books by black authors. (Here’s a link to the full list and to the book reviews connected to it).

Then, serendipitously, it turned out that my boyfriend and I would be traveling to Atlanta, Martin Luther King Junior’s hometown. It’s safe to say I knew exactly which book would be coming with me there!

A Gift of Love is a compilation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermons which was originally published under the title Strength to Love (only one essay was removed from the original collection “How Should a Christian View Communism?”, and two were added “The Drum Major Instinct” and “The Three Dimensions of A Complete Life”).  These are all sermons, so if you grind your teeth at the mention of religion, this will not be the book for you.

I loved this book so much. Reading it in Atlanta, before and after my visit to the Martin King Luther, Jr. Memorial Site was such an incredible experience, especially as the Center featured many audio and video recordings of the sermons that I was reading. As I read, I could almost hear the tone of the speaker’s voice.

Importantly, some of the best characteristics of this book come from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s talents as a preacher. His job was to convey complex ideas to a mass audience, and he does so with skill and humility.

“Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to “love your enemies”. Some men have sincerely felt that its actual practice is not possible. (…) Others, like the philosopher Nietzsche, contend that Jesus’ exhortation to love one’s enemies is testimony to the fact that the Christian ethic is designed for the weak and cowardly, and not for the strong and courageous. (…) Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains a barrier to the relationship (…) There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

In fact, reading Dr. King’s speeches made me feel like I actually wanted to listen to them – and I regret not having picked up the CD recordings of the speeches at the Center. The other thing that happened is, though I had foregone the habit reading books with a pencil unless I’m actually writing a review for a magazine or a newspaper,  I nicked a pencil from my boyfriend and I started underlining passages. Take this one form “Antidotes for Fear”

“First, we must unflinchingly face our fears and honestly ask ourselves why we are afraid. This confrontation will, to some measure, grant us power. We shall never be cured of fear by escapism or repression, for the more we attempt to ignore and repress our fears, the more we multiply our inner conflicts.”

Or this one, from “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”, which I feel some politicians really ought to be reading right now:

“And you may think you got all you got by yourself. But you know, before you go out here to church this morning, you were dependent on half the world. You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom, and you reach over for a bar of soap, and that’s handed to you by a Frenchman. (…) And then you go on to the kitchen to get your breakfast.  You reach on over to get a little coffee, and that’s poured in your cup by a South American. Or maybe you want a little cocoa, that’s poured in your cup by a West African. (…) Before you get through eating breakfast in the morning, you’re dependent on more than half the world. That’s the way God structured it.”

Notice the repetitions framing this impressive list: this sermon is meant to be spoken to a listening audience. There are themes across Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermons that come to one’s attention again and again: bits of sermons are recycled and reused.

These are not strictly literary texts—they were made for a practical purpose. I really hope I will find time to go back to those sermons again, and that I may find the strength of will to let them create a lasting impact on the way I live my life: that they will give me the courage to stand up for what’s right and not to yield to hatred.

I leave you with a link to one of the last speeches Martin Luther King, Jr. made, and extract of which was played as a eulogy at his funeral.

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