At the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on Saturday, the address delivered by American Episcopal bishop Michael Curry on the subject of the power of love, began with a quotation from Martin Luther King Jr.
That quotation comes from a 1957 sermon on the subject of “Loving Your Enemies,” which King delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. In that sermon, he spoke these words, from which Curry paraphrased on Saturday:
The choice of quotation is clearly fitting for a wedding, an occasion on which the power of love is clear. It’s also fitting for Markle, an American bride whose mother is African American, to be welcomed into the royal family with the words of one of the most powerful orators of the civil rights movement and of American history.
But, taken in its original context — a context to which Curry gestured on Saturday morning, amid his discussion of love within marriage — King’s words carry a political message than might be considered surprising for a royal wedding sermon.
Around the time when King delivered that sermon in 1957, as Carolyn Calloway-Thomas, chair of African American and African Diaspora Studies at the Indiana University Bloomington and an editor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Sermonic Power of Public Discourse, told TIME earlier this year, the 20th century American civil rights movement was still in its early phases. King would have been helping his listeners understand his philosophy.
His original exhortation on the power of love, then, was an explanation for his nonviolent philosophy. It also functioned as a set of instructions for African Americans trying to figure out how to respond to the racism they were forced to deal with on a daily basis.
First, King began by explaining the practical matter of how to love one’s enemies, a process he acknowledged as truly difficult. The enemies one had to love included national enemies such as the communist Soviet Union; personal enemies who were responding to legitimate grievances; and even enemies who don’t like a person because of his or her skin color. King’s recipe for loving those enemies began with looking inward to examine the real causes of the enmity, and then by trying to see that every person contains both good and evil. Thus it may be possible to love the enemy — even if you still don’t like that person.
Then, King moved on to why to love one’s enemies. One answer there, to King, is clear: because hate multiplies hate, and harms the hater too. Love, on the other hand, redeems the lover.
Thus, as the nation faced its civil rights crisis, in a world in which “history unfortunately leaves some people oppressed and some people oppressors,” there were three ways the oppressed could face their situation — and here’s where the wedding quotation comes in.
The first method was violence. That didn’t work because it “creates many more social problems than it solves,” and “as the Negro, in particular, and colored peoples all over the world struggle for freedom, if they succumb to the temptation of using violence in their struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness.”
The second method was to give up and accept oppression because fighting is difficult. That didn’t work, King said, because “noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”
The third method was love. Not just any love, but resistance through love.”
“[There] is another way. And that is to organize mass nonviolent resistance based on the principle of love,” King said. “It seems to me that this is the only way.”
King’s conclusion was that he would “rather die” than hate. But that didn’t mean he would let evil pass unnoticed. Rather, he would send the power of love at it, in hopes that “somewhere men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed.” The love of which he spoke, the love summoned by Bishop Curry at the royal wedding on Saturday, was to be used not merely to begin an individual relationship, but also to change the world through mass resistance to oppression.
That’s a message perhaps best left to subtext at a ceremony involving one of the world’s most prominent ruling families. But even if those specific instructions were not part of Curry’s address, the idea was still there, for the new Duke and Duchess of Sussex to take with them — and for everyone watching around the world. “Imagine our world,” he said, in the prepared version of his remarks, “when love is the way.”
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