On Christmas eve 1967 -exactly 50 years ago- Martin Luther King held a sermon, called “Peace on Earth”, in the Ebezener Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, where he had previously served as co-pastor.
I have read Martin Luther King’s sermon again during Christmas time and would like to share its contents as they may still be inspiring and deeply bond to the present.
Before looking into that sermon, may I briefly outline the basic contest and almost his previous and more famous speech, given 4 years earlier in Washington.
August 1963, “I have a dream…“
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”
(Read here the full speech “I have a dream…“)
I was 14 at that time and didn’t know much about Martin Luther King, equal rights and political issues. Only some years later I started to be interested with the aims he was fighting for: nonviolence, social justice, peace, brotherhood.
In those years amid students of colleges and universities grew the awareness that what happens faraway in Asia or Africa or in the ghettos of our cities, it happens to each of us, it is our matter too, it can’t be ignored.
It was an era of utopia: the most idealistic dreams came to light, there was an overflow of utopian visions that might have appeared chaotic and illusionary, but also encouraged youngsters to be active in their community, sparked inspiration, fired enthusiasm for changes… and young people responded with the energy that only young people can have!
One of the most common dream was that we could stop the wars and live in a common house where every human being could find shelter and peace: it was somehow a positive reaction to the fear of war and mass destruction weapons that were produced and stored massively in that period.
The folk song “Last night I had the strangest dream …“ written in 1950 -just after the end of WW2- by American folk singer Ed McCurdy, was one of the best expression of that wonderful “no-war” dream. Many artists -such as Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Simon& Garfunkel and others- contributed to pass that dream on to my generation and over.
The ways to make that utopian world real were however quite different.
On one side there were people who wanted to reply to violence with violence.
On the other one there were those who wanted to achieve their peaceful aims by nonviolent means like Mahatma Gandhi did in India. Martin Luther King was a champion of nonviolence and civil disobedience.
A third stream chose the Arcadia dream of living in pastoral communities, away from the evil world.
Martin’s dream was visionary but not vague, it was a dream deeply rooted into the living conditions of his folk, into the fight for civil rights, into the battle for the end of segregation and poverty of his ‘Negro’ brothers and sisters, into the creed of all men being equal and deserving their worth. He drew his dream in front of the eyes of an oceanic crowd with passionated words, with impressive clarity. His speech had an immediate strong impact worldwide.
Christmas 1967, “I still have a dream…”
The sermon “Peace on Earth” -held on Christmas eve 1967- is much less famous -but not less significant- than the 1963 speech.
In those four years -1963/1967- the cruelty of the Vietnam war grew exponentially; the racial segregation became violent despite new anti-segregation laws and rules and was de-facto practiced in the southern area of the US (watch the movie “Mississippi Burning” to have an idea); social and political conflicts began to quiver all over the world. The movement for peace became very popular, supported by the Vietnam war veterans, and reached a large consensus in the US and all over the world .
There were tough other people -such as the Black Panthers- who believed that violent actions were needed to stop the racial violence and to achieve their civil rights. As the motto goes, the road to the hell is paved by good intentions… So terrorism and violence didn’t get ever close to their aims. More effective was the action of Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat on public transports and caused the longest and most effective strike in recent years, when black people deserted any public transport for over a year to cause a collapse in the finances of the public transports.
Martin Luther King was on this side of the fight: his weapons were thoughts, words, ethical values. He opened his 1967 Christmas sermon by strongly clarifying that war calls war not peace, and that good ends (peace, social justice, equal rights, brotherhood) can not be achieved by evil means (violence).
“Ends and means must cohere” he stated and actually the time has come -Martin affirmed- that nonviolence is to rise to the international stage as method to harmonise the relations between Nations.
We need to be aware that “We are made to live together: whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality”. We are embarked on a common destiny was his message and have to take care of one other.
The food bank, a step to mutuality
He went on describing the most sickening aspect of social injustice: poverty. How can we ignore that there are children and people in Asia and Africa and other areas -even in some corners of our societies- who go to bed hungry with empty stomachs? We spend millions of dollars every day to store surplus food.
“I know where we can store that food free of charge! in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God’s children in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and even in our own nation, who go to bed hungry at night.”
In that period poverty rose dramatically in the US and involved almost black people in their ghettos and a devout, dedicated man, John van Hengel, took the initiative in that year 1967 to open the first food bank in Phoenix, Arizona.
The consequence of Martin’s paradigm –we are made to be equal but black people are segregated– is that we need to embrace the statement “Love your enemy“.
Three dimension of Love: Eros, Philia, Agápe
We can’t fight the ‘enemy’ with the same evil means of violence and segregation: instead, it strongly recommended to be resilient and reply with the most powerful weapon that poor people have, that is ‘love’.
He mentioned the three dimensions of love that the Greek language describes as eros, philia and agape.
“Eros is a sort of aesthetic, romantic love. Plato used to talk about it a great deal in his dialogues, the yearning of the soul for the realm of the divine. And there is and can always be something beautiful about eros, even in its expressions of romance. Some of the most beautiful love in all of the world has been expressed this way.”
“Philia is a kind of intimate love between personal friends. This is the kind of love you have for those people that you get along with well, and those whom you like on this level you love because you are loved.”
“Agape is more than romantic love, it is more than friendship… Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return… When you rise to love on this level, you love all men not because you like them, not because their ways appeal to you, but you love them because God loves them… Love is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all men. And I think this is where we are, as a people, in our struggle for racial justice. We can’t ever give up…”.
May I highlight: “Love is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all men!” Should these qualities of love being practiced in our daily life from a certain number of people, the world would quickly turn upside down !
The 1967 sermon lifts the contents of the 1963 speech from a passionated political level to a higher realm of clarity and spirituality.
Martin reckons that in those four years (1963/67) his dream turned into a nightmare.
Racial segregation sharpened, poverty expanded, violence increased and spread. How can you continue to dream?
His answer was coherent:
“I still have a dream: that men are made to live together as brothers… I still have a dream that one day every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality…
I still have a dream that the empty stomachs of Mississippi will be filled and brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of prayer …
I still have a dream that one day justice will roll down like water…
I still have a dream today that one day war will come to an end…
I still have a dream today that the lion and the lamb lie down together…
I still have a dream that with this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.”
Christmas 2017, fifty years later
What is our dream today? How do we imagine the society we are going to live in the future? It is a question for youngsters: do you have a dream? are you teenagers and young people, shaping your dreams for your future life in this society? how would you like to change the world that we “old kids” are passing on to you, certainly not “a perfect world”…
There is nowadays a devastating opponent for our young kids: the lack of dreams. The direction of our current civilisation is anaesthetising imagination, creativity and awareness. These are qualities that we must keep active and awake and education -both at school and at home- plays the most important role to shape the society and culture of the near future.
While reading Martin Luther King’s sermon over last Christmas holiday, I felt very happy and lucky to have lived the great changes that occurred in the last half a century. Serious problems -small and big- have not yet been sorted in full but great progresses have been made in many areas in regard of freedom, equality and brotherhood.
The way is still long though and we -old and young kids- have to focus on what and how we can achieve more progresses by first of all creating an environment where kids can still dream their future and nourish the sublime, divine nature of human beings.
When the “opponents” of a good progress will use evil means -such as mobbing, abusing, robbing, corrupting, killing, submitting humans to humans-, when they show themselves as “enemy”, then we need to stand and stick with our ethics, which are not to reply to violence with violence, arrogance with arrogance, but to continue making good deeds. And being resilient.
Speaking to his congregation, Martin described with these words the answer that is to be given those opponents:
“we shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with our soul force“. And -I would like to add- with spiritual, ethical force.
Martin Luther King was stabbed to death on 4 April 1968, three months after his Christmas sermon on peace.
We may now say: yes, a man can be killed by his evil brother, but his legacy will last over his life.
May I encourage my Friends to read in full the Christmas 1967 sermon “Peace on Earth“ by Martin Luther King: it is the best way to keep his legacy alive and to plant a seed for a new meaning of community where freedom, equality and brotherhood can become effective.
It is is also the best way to keep up the memory of those heroes and civilians whose lives were taken by evil wars.