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One of the most difficult things to do in the world is to respond to hatred, or hurt, with love.

Our natural response when we are attacked is to strike back. The predator instinct takes over, and we lash out, hoping that through strength or determination we can strike the offender down. We have become convinced through the dominate narrative of our culture that the only way to stop someone from attacking us is through sheer force. When someone harms us, we want to harm them in return, or see that someone else harms them. When a coworker is mean to us, we figuratively write them off and avoid them. When someone at school mocks us, we craft ever greater insults to get them back. When an enemy threatens us, we pull a gun and put them in their place. This is our natural instinct.

The words of Jesus, therefore, seem strange when placed against this natural instinct. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to treat others the way we want to be treated. In a utopian society, those ideas sound great. If only we could all respond that way, our communities would be full of kindness and love.

But that’s not the way the world works, we remind ourselves. Bullies will walk all over us. Evil people will take advantage of our weakness. If we don’t respond with force they will simply strike us down, because evil doesn’t mind using force to stop us. We must meet them strength for strength. At least, those are the messages we think we hear in our minds.

This dichotomy, with the words of Jesus on one side and the reality of our natural instincts on the other, is what makes the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the Civil Rights Movement so powerful. Against our natural tendencies, King advocated love and not hate. Taking the message of Jesus seriously in the Sermon on the Mount, King encouraged the African-American community to stand up for their rights, to become a force that is so powerful it changes the system, but to accomplish that change not through violence and hate, but through love. As King states at one point:

“To meet hate with retaliatory hate would do nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Hate begets hate; violence begets violence, toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love; we must meet physical force with soul free. Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.” (From A Testament Of Hope: The Essential Writings And Speeches Of Martin Luther King Jr. pg.17)

The goal for King was always reconciliation. The goal was a dream that little boys and girls would play together on the playground and in back yards, regardless of the color of their skin. That this type of life would be natural, because it’s the way it should be. Hated and violence only cause more divisions. What changes society is not hate, but love.

If we are to learn any lessons from King and others during the Civil Rights Movement, it must begin with learning to respond not in hatred, but love. We must learn to love our neighbors, whether our neighbors deserve love or not. We must learn to respond to hatred with love, whether we necessarily always feel the love completely in our hearts or not. That’s how the world is changed.

When we read stories of members of the AME Charleston church shooting go to court to forgive Dylan Roof, the shooter, we know that love is what changes the world. When we read stories of Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Project in South Africa, where the oppressed forgave those who had oppressed them for years, we know that love is what changes the world. When we read Corrie Ten Boom’s own words, as she wrestles with and finally learns to forgive her guard from the concentration camp that helped enable the Nazi’s to kill her sister, we know that love is what changes the world. And when we read the words of Jesus from the cross, and he’s still able to love and forgive the ones who are crucifying him, we know that love is what changes the world.

Somehow, against our own natural tendencies, we must find a way to respond to hatred with love. Somehow, we must embrace the teachings of Jesus, and learn to love our enemies, and seek the best interest of everyone we meet. Somehow, we must learn from the example of Martin Luther King Jr, and so many others who bravely showed our world how to change society through non-violent resistance.

If we want our world to be different, it starts with you and me. We must respond to everyone in love, and allow love, to change the world.